By Shawna Seldon McGregor
When Cannabis Business Executive offered me a recurring column to dig into the details and the drama behind the art of communicating to targeted audiences—otherwise known as public relations—I jumped at the opportunity. I knew this would be a fun and enlightening opportunity to peel back the complex layers of publicity, specifically as it pertains to the cannabis industry.
But perhaps a quick review of the profession and its history within the industry is in order.
Let’s start with this: Many business leaders don’t fully grasp the distinct nuances between public relations (or earned media) versus advertising (or paid media). With paid media, you are paying for an advertisement, and you know when and where it will run. But with earned media, you are earning that editorial placement by catching a reporter’s attention with a compelling pitch or press release.
You can’t demand or pay for earned media from a reputable news outlet, and most of the time you’re relying on a communications professional (such as myself) to pitch these stories to journalists, because we have relationships with some of these writers going back decades. But trust me, the effort is worth it: Studies show that earned media is more trustworthy and carries more weight with consumers. For example, a 2016 study found that earned media created the most positive brand impression.
Another important metric: Earned media is also ranked as the most likely to be shared.
And while a majority of U.S. states and a handful of countries globally have now legalized or decriminalized cannabis for either medical or adult-use purposes, the ways in which marijuana companies can market their products are strictly regulated as it pertains to advertising, events, corporate social responsibility, social media and so on. With stringent regulations experienced by no other legal industry, we see time and time again that publicity is the most effective way of reaching your target audience and educating your pinpointed demographic as a marijuana business.
In just the past five years, the cannabis industry’s relationship with the media has changed dramatically. Before 2014, cannabis companies operated in fear of the Feds—of getting shut down or raided or even having their ownership teams imprisoned. No one wanted to stick their necks out. Even if the company was functioning legally in a state-regulated market, license holders generally shied away from media coverage, and few considered public relations a valuable use of their resources—better to save those funds for a lawyer. But the media was hungry for information and education, and while activists were available to discuss the legalization process, there wasn’t a sophisticated PR presence in place to provide details on the intricate business aspects of the industry.
But as states came online, the business story was undeniable. The press wanted to speak with executives working in this Brave New World because their readers wanted to know more. Was it safe? What are the health benefits? And what about jobs? Taxes? The economy?
As more markets—both domestically and internationally—come online and entrepreneurs flock to the Green Rush, many company leaders realize that leveraging public relations is a valuable way to differentiate their business from those of their many competitors. By speaking to the media, executives have an opportunity to share their business’ narrative and Unique Selling Proposition.
Plus, these same executives have already committed their blood, sweat and tears to their endeavors. Why not stand up publicly for something you commit most of your waking hours to?
The outlets where a company can share their marijuana stories are multiplying by the day. As entrepreneurs emerged in legalized states, outlets such as Cannabis Business Executive launched to cover their business moves and report on their growth and successes. Major city newspapers such as The Denver Post and San Francisco Chronicle emerged with verticals including The Cannabist and Green State. (And even though The Cannabist recently hit hard times, my business partner at Grasslands is looking to purchase the celebrated vertical.) Magazines including Inc., Slate, Entrepreneur and Forbes created dedicated positions for marijuana writers. Mainstream publications such as Bon Appetit and Vogue include high-end marijuana products in their pages. New culture outlets such as Sensi and Civilized launched, casting a wider net on what a cannabis-consuming “lifestyle” looks like in the post-prohibition era.
All of these journalists need to hear from business leaders like you for the stories they produce. Initially much of the media focused on the first states that legalized adult-use, specifically Colorado and Washington, but now media attention is turning to new stages such as California and Massachusetts—not to mention Canada and Spain.
And as more markets come online to offer medical or adult-use programs, there are a plethora of new opportunities for businesses in those regions to tell their stories and to weigh in on issues ranging from policy to regulations, business ethics and beyond. There are also ways to educate new demographics of consumers who are just now learning about utilizing marijuana for health benefits, as well as the multitude of delivery systems including edibles and topicals. Most news outlets have realized that cannabis business stories are economy stories.
And if they haven’t discovered that yet, you have the unique opportunity to educate them.
In the columns to come, I look forward to sharing so much with you here—focusing on the best practices in public relations as they relate to the cannabis industry, including what makes a good press release, how to newsjack the day’s breaking news, what publicity tactics to leverage when launching a new product, how to handle crisis management and so much more.
But because I am writing this column for you, I want to know what MarCom issues you would like to see covered in this space. So please send your questions, issues and challenges to [email protected], and stay tuned for my next column coming in July.