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Cannabis Communication in the time of COVID-19: Six Key Takeaways

As we entered the new decade, we knew 2020 was going to be a big year for headlines: a presidential election; The Olympics; a booming economy. As January dawned, the cannabis industry was also preparing for a big news year, with those 2020 ballots featuring more states voting on whether to legally regulate medical or adult-use cannabis; OG brands celebrating a decade of serving their customers; and this year, the sector’s high holy holiday, 4/20, was going to be a month-long celebration. On the hemp side, CBD companies were looking forward to industry validation at the world’s biggest natural foods trade show, Natural Products Expo West, slated to start March 3. SXSW presentations were being rehearsed and then rehearsed again. Plans were made, briefings were scheduled, launches were coordinated, and collateral was developed. But in the background, what started as tiny alerts on the other side of the globe–COVID-19–was about to grind life as we knew it nearly to a stop. As we look back on March and ahead to our new reality in April and beyond, how we handle communications for our organizations could be a deciding factor in who makes it through to the other side of this crisis.  Here are six key takeaways from the COVID-19 Crisis. 

  1. Monitor the situation. No one should have been surprised by the COVID-19 crisis. Those headlines that began on the other side of the globe in December were by January getting louder, bigger and closer. The message was there too: We must do what we can to stop the spread, or face consequences potentially including  death rates not seen in modern times. As we planned events for March and April, we continued to keep our eyes on the crescendo of headlines about the spread of COVID-19. On Jan. 30, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.On Jan. 31 President Trump banned foreign nationals from entering the US if they had been in China within the prior two weeks. On Feb. 9, the death toll of victims of COVID-19 surpassed the death toll of the SARS epidemic in 2002 and 2003, which killed 773 people. But because states received no guidance from the federal government, travel and events such as New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, on Feb. 25, continued the spread. However, travel bans with other countries, as well as general concerns around community spread, were affecting large conferences such as Natural Products Expo West, and by March 2, the world’s largest natural products trade show had been postponed and ultimately cancelled. As the business community tracked these vectors, we also watched COVID-19 hit closer to home. As states shut down entire sectors–such as entertainment, food service, dining, travel, even ski areas–other industries, including cannabis, were deemed essential, but also were left dealing with whiplash as they tried  to stay ahead of regulations. In Colorado, dispensaries were tracking hourly changes in regulations affecting operations, such as curbside pickup, delivery, and whether they could even remain open for their patients and customers.While your company’s operations are revising and implementing new standard operating procedures, you should have a plan for how you are communicating this information with your employees as well as external audiences such as customers and the community where you operate.
  2. Understand the role of communication and how it fits in your organization. An organization’s  public relations staff  generally reports to the CMO or head of marketing. However, it is very important to understand the nuances among the different practices that fall under the marketing umbrella. Communication is key for the health of the organization, and it is important that the communications lead at your organization has a seat at the table. Your audiences want answers, and they can get those answers from you, or from some outside source that might be less accurate. In a crisis, you want to communicate the steps you are taking to keep your key constituents safe. This includes your employees, customers, shareholders, policy makers, community, and anyone else your operation affects. Your communication and messages during this time should be about safety, NOT about how you are selling your widgets. What do your employees need to know about how you are keeping them safe, whether they are working from a company facility or from their home? What do your customers need to know about the safety and access to your product? What do your policy makers need to know about what you need to continue to keep your business afloat? What do your shareholders need to know about the viability of your business in the midst of the crisis? What does your community need to know about how you are helping? Some of these messages may overlap and some may be completely separate. But each of these audiences needs answers from you: how are you providing them?
  3. Have a (response) plan. When communicating in a time of crisis, you have to be ready to throw your best-laid plans into the garbage. First, who’s on your response team? In a time of crisis, being open and transparent will win the day. You want to have a spokesperson who is willing and able to speak with authority to the media and other constituencies. Planned events and initiatives might no longer be appropriate when focus turns to keeping a crush of patients out of the emergency room. Rather, this is the time to employ response strategies and plans. Leverage emergency plans to communicate with your key audiences, including employees, customers, regulators, stakeholders and the community where you operate. Turn your focus and bandwidth on what your company can authentically and organically do to help the community. If you are a MIP, how are you still safely producing products while properly social distancing? If you are a dispensary, how are you serving your patients and adult-use customers while keeping them safe from infection? How are you dealing with employees who aren’t comfortable working in this situation? How are you treating employees who are sick? How you answer any one of these questions could have a deep, and permanent, impact on your brand. 
  4. Be ready to pivot. At Maverick PR, we had been expecting March and April to be a hectic time full of conferences, product launches, celebrations and more. Now all of those plans have been scratched, and for good reason. It is critical to put those plans behind and focus on pivoting to the issue of the day. We generally focus on three pillars of thought leadership: media relations, content development and speaking engagements.
    • For media relations, we immediately stopped pitching any angles that didn’t fit with the current news hole. That meant that 90% or more of our pitching efforts have had some sort of a COVID-19 message, such as how COVID-19 is affecting operations or how our clients can provide assistance to the public during this time. We specifically heard this need from breaking news and daily news outlets, such as the local daily and affiliate TV/radio station. Local affiliates were no longer having guests in-studio, due to the outbreak. So we needed to make sure our clients were ready and able to handle interviews over Zoom and Skype. We shot b-roll from our cell phones. We completely shifted gears to learn what our clients are doing in the midst of this crisis, how their operations are affected, and of course, what this means to their bottom line. The ultimate business implications of the outbreak and the resulting stalled economy remain hazy. While we’re seeing a spike in demand for some products as consumers worry about consistent availability of items such as cannabis, we are also aware that millions of Americans are affected by unemployment, and that will inevitably affect their purchasing decisions in the coming months.
    • Content development:  We’re moving fast to provide service and commentary on the latest regulations, executive orders and business directives. This means coordinating interviews between our clients and the media as well as determining topics for our clients to develop written commentary. We’re also concerned with public safety.
    • Speaking Engagements: As conferences are cancelled, we’re now looking at virtual webinars and other communications tools we can use to stay connected while safely observing social distancing. We are able to pull from our response-strategy experience to be able to quickly lay framework and plan for the unexpected. Our clients are already experts in their specific areas, so they have the ability to share their message with others. For trade and business outlets, we have been carefully monitoring the appetite for business news. Even during this time of crisis, businesses are continuing to move through cyclical activities, such as business partnerships and new executive appointments, and there seems to be some interest in covering  non-COVID-19 stories. That interest will likely increase as time goes on.
  5. Put yourself in the shoes of the news media and be willing to share your story. The news media exists to provide their audiences with information they need to know. And right now, the general media on a regional level are being asked by their readers and viewers when life is going to get back to normal and when their local grocery stores’ shelves will be fully stocked again. This means we have absolutely had to change how we are operating daily. We cannot try to pitch the media stories that aren’t relevant to the crisis. We must address the breaking news of the day and provide the service the media is looking for. If your story doesn’t have a COVID-19 angle or your expert can’t address how COVID-19 is affecting their daily operation, you must rethink why you are trying to get coverage for this topic now. The media wants to know how COVID-19 is affecting their audiences, whether that’s a local outlet looking for consumer information or a trade outlet looking for details on how this will affect their business readers. We’re also getting a lot of requests for our clients to provide bylines that provide service around what the audience (whether consumer or business) needs to do. With most communities expected to have to shelter-in-place in force through the end of April, we can expect that this new normal will continue for the next few months. Media wants specific information, numbers, facts, metrics. Develop a fact sheet/FAQ, which can include:
      • What policies are being implemented to manage your work force during this crisis, including paid leave, options for staying home or working from home, levels of staff shortages. Are jobs being held open for people who can’t or don’t want to come in to work? 
      • What specific safety protocols are being implemented, such as distancing, cleaning equipment, etc. Both for workers and for customer interaction. 
      • As much transparency as possible about how business is being affected. Companies’ willingness and ability to do this will obviously determine how much can be said, but whatever can be shared, should be. 
      • What supply chain issues are you facing? China was the first to put a kink in the supply chain. We’ve seen issues in Europe, and soon, domestic supply chains might be affected in hard-hit areas and within companies where there is a lot of human interaction, or that are labor-intensive.
      • How is COVID-19 affecting investment decisions and plans to raise capital? Are you moving forward with what was planned? Holding off? Renegotiating?
      • What is your forecast for the market in six months? A year? How would different scenarios affect this? We’ve seen cannabis sales spike, then start to level out. Will they stay above average because people stuck at home will want cannabis products? How long will that last if a lot of people lose their jobs? 
  6. Look ahead. This crisis won’t last forever, but it will leave its mark: COVID-19 will indelibly change the way we work, socialize, shop, travel, conference, network and more. And while we may not see another crisis like this for two decades, we also may be dealing with the immediate fallout from COVID-19 for the next year and a half or more. We are certainly looking at an economic downturn. Budgets will tighten. Messages will be reviewed for appropriateness. And in my humble opinion, public relations and communications will continue to be a priority. Those who succeed will be those who are honest, transparent and ready to communicate their message with their key constituents.  
Shawna Seldon McGregor

Shawna Seldon McGregor

Shawna Seldon McGregor is the founder of Maverick Public Relations. She established Maverick PR in 2018 after two decades at PR agencies in New York City and Denver. McGregor has deep experience representing a multitude of sectors including biotech, sustainable technologies, renewable energy, associations, the regulated cannabis industry and media companies. McGregor is a member of PRSA, where she has earned a certificate in Reputation Management. She’s also a member of NIRI, NCIA and Denver Press Club. She was named a top PR pro by Civilized (January 2018), Cannabis Industry Journal (December 2017) and MG magazine (June 2017). In 2016, she accepted the Cannabist Award for best agency for work in the cannabis industry. For more information, contact [email protected]

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