As a lifetime marketer and diehard millennial who avoids reading full news articles whenever possible, I can honestly say I didn’t understand the importance of PR just a few short years, much less understand its value to the emerging cannabis market. I always understood it would be good to have news media pay attention to my clients, but I was convinced I could create just as much of an impact with a good marketing budget and a decent graphic team. So why did I decide to build a PR agency within the cannabis space? Simple answer is: it’s a complete necessity.
For the beginners, Public Relations, or PR, is the act of coordinating with members of the media (whether on behalf of yourself or a client) with hopes of persuading them to cover your story in a positive light. PR can be either reactive or proactive, reacting to breaking headline news and hoping for inclusion on industry news, or proactivity pitching the value propositions of a company with hopes of placement. While there are many other facets of a full-scale PR campaign, that’s the general overview. Get you covered in the news. But why? What does that help?
Well for starters, according to Neilson, 90% of people trust a news source as credible over advertising. Having your company, product, event or spokesperson covered in a trade or mainstream news media outlet creates a sense of confidence that resonates with people and tells a story. While there is always a chance that an organic news placement may take a negative angle, per the old adage that “all publicity is good publicity,” it is well worth the risk. And with a good PR team, the chances of receiving negative publicity are much less.
You get it, media exposure = good. But why is it so critical in the cannabis space? Well, I’m so glad you asked!
First and foremost, cannabis companies are not able to advertise like mainstream companies. From Facebook blocking company pages to traditional outlets literally turning down advertising dollars, the challenges cannabis companies face when trying to advertise through traditional outlets are painful. It hasn’t changed that much from the 60s where in order to get a message out you have to damn near go door to door with a printed pamphlet. I myself have been completely blocked from ever again advertising on Facebook or Instagram. After many appeals, I finally got a human to respond by saying they “do not support my business model” citing a policy that states “no promotion of illegal drugs” is allowed and that it is a final decision. I’m a cannabis PR FIRM – I don’t even touch the plant – UGH – another time, another blog.
Anyway, for emerging consumer brands in cannabis, PR may be the only way to get consumers attention. Per the rule of 7, a rule that says consumers need to be hit with a brand 7 times before it sticks, cannabis brands are extremely limited in communication channels to reach potential customers. Imagine a consumer walking into a dispensary and instead of saying “What do you recommend?” to the budtender who then holds all the keys, he says, “Can I have that edible I read about in that magazine article?” That could be a reality! Garnering a product review in trade or mainstream outlets is just one example of placement that appeals to consumers, much like a peer recommendation– and they work. There are many ways to get media attention on consumer products and brands, but 9.9999 times out of ten the press doesn’t just come calling.
Besides consumer branding, PR plays an important role in distinguishing the value proposition and overall credibility of a company over its competitors. With hundreds (probably thousands) of people entering the cannabis industry daily, there is a lot of noise about “the next best thing in cannabis.” Who can really distinguish between those who are going to make it and those who are all smoke and mirrors? The media– that’s who. Well, at least that’s what people inherently think. If a major publication, such as Forbes or Reuters, covers a company, it positions the company as superior while impressing the brand onto that outlet’s audience, which often equates to hundreds or thousands of impressions. Can a paid ad do that? In an emerging market like cannabis where many companies are still raising money and looking for investors, news placement offers that piece of credibility that can mean the difference between a $100,000 and a $1,000,000 valuation.
While these reasons should be compelling enough for companies to want a strong PR program, there is one other reason that PR is so important in the cannabis industry. Although we have come a long way since the days of reefer madness (remake anyone?), we are still fighting a stigma every day. We still have states in the dark ages where politicians, banks, regulators and others continue to perceive cannabis negatively and cast doubt on emerging companies and products. As a publicist, our jobs are to shift people’s perceptions (get it, CMW, Changing Minds Worldwide…oh snap) to what WE want them to be. As cannabis companies enter new markets, they must be prepared to combat negative views of cannabis and one of the best avenues to accomplish this is through the media. Seeing an inspirational human interest story about how a little girl’s seizures stopped after using cannabidiol (CBD) oil on a local news station resonates with people in a way that no ad or Facebook post ever could.
Now, I’ve talked a lot of trash on my beloved marketing, which is not fair. A truly successful communications strategy utilizes all available channels in a consistent and engaging manner. That being said, business owners often forget the importance of media exposure as a part of that program. Yes, PR expenditures are harder to swallow as they are not guaranteed like the purchasing of an ad. But, if you think about it, the only tangible thing you are getting from a traditional advertisement is the creative itself. Tracking ROI on advertising can be just as difficult and I would argue that the CPM (for the rookies, that’s the cost of each one thousand impressions on people) is much lower in an earned media piece – where the reach is larger, and audiences tend to absorb news content more than advertisements.
PR has been around since the industrial revolution and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Sure, the landscape has changed since the advent of the internet, but I would say that only increases the opportunity to shape the conversation in a way we want through a properly executed PR campaign.
SHAMELESS PLUG: If you want to talk more about what you could be doing with your media exposure, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org – we would love to help!
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