I want to expand on my previous column where I discussed how PR professionals should aim to work with content creators — writers, producers, directors, set designers, and so on — to help change the conversation around cannabis.
The next gatekeepers we need to enlist in this mission are the media who cover this space. As the U.S. now has 36 states with a medical cannabis program and 17 states passing adult-use legalization, we need to educate the public at large and change the perception around cannabis.
I believe that to truly grow into the mainstream, the industry must broaden the media scope from the endemic media that organically cover the industry. This would shift away from a B2B-focused perspective and a reader base pre-disposed to being cannabis advocates in some way, to the mainstream media and the general public.
Outlets like CNBC, network and cable news, business-focused sites like Bloomberg Businessweek, Business Insider, Reuters, and the NASDAQ channel, as well as political sites like Politico, have dedicated cannabis reporters or segments covering the industry. As a federally illegal industry that is generating millions in revenue, the cannabis industry at large still isn’t able to work with banks and other financial institutions, is held to certain regulations by the IRS, and is laden with many obstacles to success.
As many of us know, due to laws that intentionally target Brown and Black people, the cannabis-related arrest rate is disproportionately out of balance and highlight racial disparities. Minor infractions of the law have resulted not only in jail time, but prohibition from financial assistance programs, federal housing, and jobs as a result. As legalization spreads state by state, if we can identify stories to be told that showcase how people in these communities succeed despite this, everyone wins.
New York State legalized cannabis in April 2021, and effective immediately, people could smoke weed anywhere people could smoke tobacco, which meant approved smoking areas outside office buildings and stores and more relevant to this column, cigar bars.
I represent a client who, before the pandemic, was world-renowned for operating a cannabis speakeasy in midtown New York City, The Happy Munkey. Their core offering of unique live events suffered from the pandemic shutdown, but the business pivoted, morphing into a lifestyle brand, with clothing and merchandising product line, as well as a podcast and digital magazine. With the city reopening and cannabis legalized, the company wanted to re-create the Munkey’s groove and ambiance to celebrate the unofficial cannabis holiday of 4/20.
Most importantly, the company wanted to host an event that would make a statement about who they were, but more importantly, the diversity of the crowd attracted to these events and what a legal “pot party” looks like. From an optics perspective, the location had to visibly demonstrate the kind of opportunities available in this budding industry for people who look like the founders — Latinos from the Dominican Republic — and work with the media to communicate that.
Based on this experience, here are some of my tips for how brands in state-legal markets can change the conversation around cannabis by creating and curating unique experiences that aim to educate and challenge stigmas perpetuated for so many years.
First move: Pick a location that proves irresistible for television cameras and other media for coverage for your event, but still abides by any state or local guidelines. In our case, we used the legendary Bobby Van’s Steakhouse located directly across the street from the New York Stock Exchange building. What better optic to lend credibility to the financial upside of a legal cannabis industry could there be short of ringing the opening bell. Look for a venue or location that’s unique and offers a safe space for people to gather. (Of course, with consideration to Covid-19, implement any necessary safe guards and protocols to ensure the safety of the event.)
Second move: Invite only mainstream media to cover your event rather than only niche cannabis media. By extending coverage to a larger audience base, you can aim to dispel the “stoner stigma” that many cannabis consumers have long had to contend with. Open up the conversation to the non-cannabis press and allow them free reign to interview whoever they want, including founders. At our event, this meant the brand’s two founders, meaning their stories were highlighted by the “regular” media. No topic should be off-limits. The discussion might include the transition from the legacy market of purchasing cannabis to the now-legal market, challenges for minorities in the space, as well as other hot topics.
What better way to change perception than being transparent?
Needless to say, events like these can generate a lot of coverage, and this visibility allows us as PR people to use the mainstream media to educate and influence the general public. By entering the mainstream media using the power of PR, we can change the conversation around cannabis.
In my opinion, the cannabis PR person has not only the pressure and responsibility to build a positive image of their clients, but also the industry. I hope the above gives some guidance to all as we grow this business with strategic communications at the center.