High time for pot PR

IMG_0473Okay, all puns aside, the rapidly burgeoning pot industry is ripe for the picking from a variety of perspectives, and PR is certainly no exception.

Legalization in states like Colorado, Washington and Oregon has brought the cannabis industry into sharp focus in media of all kinds. Twenty other states have varying laws on the books addressing medical marijuana and decriminalized possession for personal use.

The bottom line is that publicity for the pot industry is now poised to grow in many different media outlets as the public seeks to understand how the greater acceptance of the drug will impact their lives. Discussions of pot are no longer relegated to fringe magazines like High Times, not that High Times is fringe any longer – what with pot’s normalization and legal victories, High Times is quickly becoming the cannabis equivalent of Reader’s Digest or Life.

Let’s face it, when starched and stodgy magazines like Forbes are paying attention, you know the tide has turned. There’s a reason why the grey suits on Wall Street are finally starting to wake up and smell the coffee, or ganja in this case – the revenue projections are staggering! A report by Marijuana Business Daily back in April 2014 estimates that pot sales could grow to $8.2 billion by 2018, and that’s if 4-5 states legalize recreational use of pot and another 2-3 legalize medical marijuana. The total annual sales of pot in the U.S., granted most of it illegal and therefore difficult to track, is said to approach $100 billion.

If the U.S. enacted sweeping legislation decriminalizing personal pot use, then we could be looking at the next economic boom akin to the ongoing tech boom happening in the Bay Area. The major difference is that it won’t be concentrated in such a small geographic region. Pot legalization would enable 1000s of pot-preneurs to operate a slew of businesses serving the budding industry, from growers and distributors to retail shops and e-commerce sites.

PR agencies need to be ready for the opportunity. Indeed, many in PR pride themselves on being early to support and promote nascent industries. Silicon Valley had its share of trailblazers. Andrea Cunningham founded Cunningham Communications and worked with Steve Jobs as well as iconic tech brands like IBM and Adobe.

Here are some suggestions to help you become a cannabis communications expert before the “green rush” passed you by:

Research: start reading everything you can find in the way businesses and regulations surrounding the pot industry. From business models to regulations to operational technologies, it pays to know the changes affecting the industry and provide value to new entrepreneurs and even established businesses entering the market. Look at established media outlets like Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, NPR, Forbes and, yes, High Times. But don’t overlook a new crop of cannabis-centric pubs like Marijuana Business Daily, theCannabist.co and CannabisNow magazine.

Advocacy: there will be plenty of opportunity for advocacy-related PR outreach as organizations seek to influence policy through proactive media outreach. The financial implications are too big to ignore, so more and more resources will be thrown at communications strategies aimed at overturning outdated cannabis laws at the state and federal level. From op-eds to contributed articles, a PR firm will have many chances to promote a cannabis client’s agenda in hopes of swaying public opinion and changing policy.

Medical: the medical industry was the opening many in the pot industry were looking for in order to argue for laxer regulations. Pot has become widely accepted as a drug to treat cancer treatment side effects such as nausea and vomiting. There is also evidence supporting pot’s ability to slow the growth of cancer by attacking cancer cells, although the findings are still not widely understood or endorsed by the medical community. As pot continues to find support in mainstream society, the funding of cannabis medical research will grow and yield additional news hooks to share with medical and general media alike.

Follow the Leader: there are always examples to follow when it comes to joining a new industry. Take, for example, Joe Hodas, who in 2012 decided to lend his PR and marketing talents to Dixie Elixirs and Edibles. Joe, CMO for Dixie, is blazing new trails by helping take pot mainstream with a consumer product portfolio that includes THC-laced sodas, mints, chocolates, snack bars and even bath and body oil products. A quick check of the company’s news page reveals that Joe has scored a pretty impressive list of media coverage in outlets like 60 Minutes, NPR and the New York Times.

Join the Movement: a quick search on Meetup.com, a popular group meeting platform, using marijuana as a search term yielded 100s of meetings happening all over the country in the upcoming months. Attend some in your community to find out what the buzz (pun very much intended) is all about and how you as a PR professional can meet and help pot-preneurs. LinkedIn has several groups you can join to participate in a wide-ranging discussion with all kinds of interested parties. Facebook has its share – surprise, surprise – of groups that fall on all sides of the pot equation.

Blogging: one way to stand out as a pot PR expert is to start blogging about the nascent industry. Begin to cover the topic from a variety of topics: medical news, consumer product launches, regulatory changes, etc. It takes time, but eventually you will establish a name for yourself as a thought leader in the new industry and start attracting pot startups and established businesses moving into the new market.

Green your Website: if you decide to enter the pot PR market, then make sure your website tells the story. You will need to add specific content addressing how you can support a variety of pot-related businesses. Another must have is search-engine friendly content that will put you at the top of Google and Yahoo searches. You can also consider pay-per-click advertising to complement your organic search engine optimization activities.

Crisis PR: because pot is illegal, and in fact is a drug, there will be blowback. A child ingests a piece of THC-laced chocolate by accident and gets rushed to the emergency room. Pot soda gets circulated in a middle school cafeteria during lunch. A person high as a kite runs over somebody’s dog – or worse, somebody’s child. Just as with any mainstream product – can you say exploding airbags in cars? – there will be plenty of controversies. PR firms will be called on to handle each one as artfully as possible and minimize damage to the client in question.

PR for Pot PR: the industry is still so young that many media outlets haven’t considered the many business categories that will pop up to address the opportunity. Crank out a news release announcing your intent to enter the new market. Because of the newsworthiness of pot, and being a very early adopter, you stand a chance of creating a little buzz in local and trade media alike.

Tradeshows: one way to mainline into any industry is to attend influential tradeshows and conferences. Consumer products have CES. Tech has SXSW Interactive. Pot has its own coming up in February 2015: CannaCon in Seattle. It bills itself as the largest “Cannabis Expo” for the pot industry and includes seminars and panels on topics ranging from pot growing and product packaging to regulatory guidance and marketing tips.

Toke-aways (couldn’t resist!): if you’re not paying attention to pot’s PR potential by now, then it’s possible you have imbibed yourself into a cannabis coma. Admittedly, embracing pot clients won’t be for just any PR professional or agency, especially understanding the industry’s controversial history.

Make no mistake, however – pot is here to stay. It will only gain acceptance and make inroads into the consumer market as it sheds its former stoner image in favor of a more eclectic, if not mainstream, image with broad appeal to more and more Americans. (Some of you are secretly lamenting the loss of the Jeff Spicoli’s and Cheech and Chongs of the world.)

Forward thinking PR agencies will be jumping in with both feet and be among the founding agencies we will be talking about 10 years hence. Will that be you?

About Dave Manzer: Dave Manzer runs his own PR firm called Dave Manzer PR and Marketing and a popular small business and startup PR support group in Austin called PR over Coffee. He is currently not representing any pot clients, although his past experiences do qualify him to speak somewhat knowledgably about the topic.

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