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Why No One is Writing About Your Cannabis Business, Part 1: What’s Your Story?

In one of our earliest meetings, a former client complained that “no one’s writing about us anymore” and “we need journalists to tell our story.” After working with several public relations firms, investor relations services, marketing agencies, consultants, and even some full-time-yet-short-lived hires, the client was frustrated and perplexed as to why his company wasn’t getting the media attention he felt it rightly deserved after nearly a decade in the cannabis space.

A quick pre-meeting analysis (a.k.a. Google search) revealed the ugly truth: There had indeed been some interesting and valuable coverage in recent years (when they were one of the few players in the game). But the only recent acknowledgement of the company in top Google search results was in their own press releases, and in Tweets and obscure blog posts and videos by penny stock traders. It was downright impossible to find mention of an interesting new hire, a community outreach event, or quotes from the company’s executives in articles about emerging topics and issues affecting the cannabis space. There was no story other than “we make money selling weed.”

Nevertheless, the client continued pumping out new products and expecting top sales and market enthusiasm despite its lack of a good “story” in the marketplace.

As a PR and marketing professional, opportunity to improve corporate communications appeared endless as this company employed hundreds of people in multiple states. Good or bad, I knew there was a story to tell, and there were endless choices to be made relating to earned and bought media, community outreach and engagement activities, corporate culture, philanthropy, and other standard corporate communications and cannabis brand marketing activities. But budget was limited, the in-house marketing team was lean and inexperienced, and buy-in from leadership on marketing-related personnel and expenses was tricky.

As is often the case in cannabis, we’d have to start small and work with what we had.

With some early successes based off low-cost efforts leveraging my network, I could justify ROI and additional marketing spends to further expose my client’s story to their target marketplace. And in addition to cashing a much-needed paycheck during the winter 2020 peak of COVID-19, I could be proud of my work helping a large multi-state employer actually define and write their “story” of being a steward of positive impact in their host communities and having an enriched, inclusive corporate culture -- not just making the executive team and investors happy.

"I could be proud of my work helping a large multi-state employer actually define and write their “story” of being a steward of positive impact in their host communities and having an enriched, inclusive corporate culture..."

But, what’s that saying about the road to hell being paved with good intentions?

“I don’t want to do press releases about new hires because they always quit after the press release goes out,” I was told when I suggested that a press release highlighting the impressive background and overall significance of a recently hired female director would help “tell the story” about the company, and bring some dimension to the constant financial updates the exclusively white-male-led company published. Wasn’t good financial performance enough for reporters to want to write about this company and cannabis rags to feature and profile them?

Um, no.

Sure, size is impressive to some, but what good was being done with all that financial gain for and with the people inside company walls and the communities in which they operated? Nothing, I soon found, at least not if it came with a price tag.

With any client, I seek to uncover and understand the company’s real story before I can convince people to understand, care for, and write about the company. And as I uncovered this client’s story, it was clear precisely why no one was talking about them. The story was one of simple cannabis industry trends – nothing about the company having any specific influence on or doing any good with the trends. The company’s financial performance was soaring because cannabis retail and wholesale sales were soaring across the board, and competition was still small.

Certainly, competition for cannabis companies had increased since medical marijuana was legalized here in Massachusetts in 2012 and adult-use in 2016, thereby intensifying the need for competitive differentiation for any cannabis company. And, in Massachusetts, cannabis licensees carry the additional responsibility of not only submitting a Positive Impact Plan and Diversity Plan, but acting upon and following through on the Plans. Those additional responsibilities equate to marketing opportunities and community engagement opportunities for the companies smart enough to see them as such, rather than see them as annoying expenses getting in the way of profits.

Did my former client expect coverage based on their fleetingly impressive financial performance? Yes.

Would investing in tools and talent to execute marketing, Positive Impact Plan, and Diversity Plan obligations help them earn media coverage and goodwill from their employees and communities? Yes.

Was the client going to pay for any ads, sponsor content, or engage in any news-worthy community outreach? Nope. Not when they could use COVID-19 as an excuse.

Will rotating in yet another public relations firm do the trick? Time will tell...

As far as I'm concerned, marketing and community outreach go hand-in-hand for any cannabis-related business that wants to do well and do good -- and secure valuable earned media opportunities along the way -- whether they are required by their state or municipality's regulations or not. Those are the businesses I want to work with. In the meantime, I'm grateful for the experience inside an MSO and lessons learned to benefit future clients and the communities in which they operate.

In my next post in this series about “Why No One Is Writing About You” I’ll dig a bit deeper into specific ways cannabis businesses can effectively approach earned media, sponsorships, and community relations to define and bring attention to their brand.


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