Can Cannabis Be Inclusive?

It’s June 2019. Welcome to Pride Month. It’s the time of the year when the cannabis industry wants you to know how much it cares. Many of the biggest brands in cannabis are rolling out the red carpet for their LGBTQ+ fans—massive dispensary chain MedMen, popular delivery service Eaze, and Kush Queen cosmetics are a few who have made substantial commitments to supporting the LGBTQ+ community. But despite the rainbow branding and heartfelt homages to queer folks who helped lead the good fight for cannabis legalization, the industry can’t ignore one uncomfortable truth: it’s very straight, it’s very white, and it’s very male.

While there’s little available data on LGBTQ+ representation within the cannabis industry, it’s clear there’s a problem—and it’s existed for some time. Back in 2017, Tessa Love of Slate warned that “by excluding LGBTQ people, the growing cannabis industry is betraying its roots.”

Other historically marginalized communities have also struggled to carve out a niche in cannabis: According to a 2017 survey from Marijuana Business Daily, only 4.3 percent of cannabis businesses are owned by Black Americans, while Hispanic Americans own 5.7 percent. Even one of the industry’s most notable success stories (the above-average representation of women in leadership roles) has been steadily eroding. While women held a full 36 percent of executive positions in 2015, by 2017 that number had decreased to 26.9 percent.

There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about bemoaning the cannabis industry’s lack of inclusivity, but the discrepancies are now too great to ignore, and addressing them with half-measures will prove problematic to the future growth of the industry. According to a May 2019 report from Grand View Research, the market for legal cannabis is expected to hit $66.3 billion by 2025.

Considering that 2015 sales in the U.S. (by far the world’s biggest consumer of cannabis) were only $5.4 billion, that prospective rate of growth would be extraordinary — yet it’s not inevitable. If the cannabis industry wants to reach its full potential, it needs to appeal to those who are not straight white men.

Here is a collection of important figures:

  • LGBTQ+ people: $917 billion
  • Women: $5 trillion (that’s a T)
  • Black Americans: $1.3 trillion
  • Hispanic Americans: $1.5 trillion

These are the best available estimates of purchasing power of different groups of people who are currently (woefully) underrepresented in the legal cannabis industry. They’re expected to increase in the years to come. Pew Research Center estimates that Hispanic and Black Americans will comprise 25 percent of the total U.S. adult population by 2025, while a recent analysis of Gallup poll data revealed that 4.5 percent of Americans consider themselves LGBTQ+, which is the highest number ever recorded.

If cannabis wants to build lasting relationships with historically marginalized communities, offering discounts during Pride Month or featuring diverse models in their advertisements simply won’t cut it. The industry needs to take strong, concrete actions to make “diversity” and “inclusion” more than buzzwords.

Here are some thoughts:

First, let’s make it easier for people from marginalized communities to get a foot in the door. Currently, most cannabis businesses require government-issued licenses to get started. These licenses are off limits to anyone with a previous drug conviction, even minor offenses, which people from marginalized communities are more likely to possess. As a result, we’re left with a world in which only a few dozen of the nation’s 3,000+ cannabis dispensaries are owned by Black Americans (around 99 percent of all dispensaries are white-owned).

And while it’s not within the industry’s direct power to change these laws, there’s a reason once-political powerhouses John Boehner, Joe Crowley, and Tom Daschle went straight from holding office to holding Board meetings for the world’s biggest cannabis companies. If those companies are genuine about wanting to make cannabis inclusive, they need to bring their power to bear on Washington. Now.

Another crucial move is to increase funding available to startups led by LGBTQ+ people, women, and all people of color. Cannabis is a notoriously capital-intensive business, with licenses running upwards of $20,000, and few conventional methods of financing available (financial institutions are wary of dealing with cannabis companies, since doing anything with the plant is still a federal crime). Getting funding is a challenge for any would-be cannabis entrepreneur, but it’s especially difficult for women and people of color. In 2017, just 2.2 percent of $85 billion in venture funding went to women, while businesses founded by women of color got what amounts to nothing. As Wanda James, the first black female dispensary owner in Colorado, told VICE: “Getting funded is a bitch.”

The cannabis industry must “change the conversation” around the plant, but in a different way. In the attempt to sanitize cannabis in the minds of mainstream audiences, a host of cannabis brands are oddly redefining a typical cannabis user as a chic, sophisticated suburbanite who is diametrically opposed to the stereotypical stoner of yesteryear. But what’s left unsaid is that a great many of those stereotypical stoners were queer, people of color, and often both. By seeking to erase the colorful cannabis past from public consciousness, the industry is missing an opportunity to right a historical wrong and secure its long-term growth.

The cannabis industry is still remarkably exciting and progressive—and we all know it. As Addison Herron-Wheeler said in OUT FRONT Magazine, “[It] is clear that the cannabis industry has its heart in the right place when it comes to acceptance and inclusion.”  There’s a difference between wanting to do the right thing and doing it, and as Herron-Wheeler notes, the industry “sometimes… [overlooks] diversity due to privilege within.”

If the cannabis industry is serious about being a positive force in society, it needs to do better—and it can.

Laermer, a proud gay man who knows his facts & figures, is our CEO & Chief Strategist

Startup PR Mentality: What’s Right & What’s Wrong?

Does your client thinks his startup is the greatest thing on earth?

Your client is wrong. But who really cares? When it comes to “getting press” a startup chief has to be ready to take on all comers.

That’s part of the problem with being a startup. The founders think it’s the best bread since sliced–and have the audacity (some say confidence) to believe they are better than a lot of the press being offered. Which is poppycock.

Another problem is that these startup types think they know how PR works.

In fact, very few people are worthy of being in the media—and as for products, hardly any. Knowing how Public Relations works? Even fewer know that magic answer.

I was recently saddled with a client—Rename Maneless—who scoffed at bloggers who wanted to get more information for possible stories on the soon-to-launch thing being offered. Scoffing is rude, first of all. On top of that there was the ages-old argument of “We can do better.” Blood now boiling, I asked this allegedly smart chief thingamabob if he knew the blog he was turning down had 50,000 readers, and did that number meant anything at all?

The answer was a walloping no. Because, and you can say it with me, it just wasn’t high level enough for his time, attention, or taste. Heavy sigh. I wondered if he knew what a high level was.

So I played a game with this genius. I told him that if he did the one interview, I’d promise him one with a major magazine. Little did he know that the first interview wasn’t even a promise of a story—and no major anything stood on deck. Man, it was like getting a kid to eat his veggies; he shrugged and said okay.

After the blog meeting, this problem child was so happy with the experience and subsequent result that he completely forgot about my disappearing magazine piece. (He really was not ready for prime.) I made him see how snobby he was being toward a real live reporter.

We wish our problems could be solved this easily.

But here we go: The next unfortunate request to the same guy came from a podcaster. This was, he said, lower than terrestrial radio–as if radio was evil. I turned the request down. There are only so many hours I can waste playing adult games.

Still, there’s one more problem with startup heads that arises when big-time media start calling. They get insecure. “I just don’t think I’m ready to talk to Time magazine,” one said. But how would you know? Do you think I’d let you sit with a reporter whom I didn’t think you were ready for /slash/ prepare you for? It’s my ass on the line!

The insecurities linger and even after it’s been decided—by me—that he’ll do it no matter what, the late night phone calls start in—and emails and texts, followed by voicemails in the office when he knows I’m gone. “I don’t know, Richard. I think it’s too early!” Too early for? Your nervous breakdown? Please.

Yeah, we face a lot of pretty regular dilemmas in PR society. We deal with Montana-sized egos and paying folk who have no think-before-I-speak button—or think something, then say it without realizing it was better left in one’s head. But some people are such know-it-alls that all our dealings are a uphill trail. To them we have to decide whether to fight or surrender.

There are painful times when it’s so difficult to get a spokesperson to speak that you have to tell the requester that the product isn’t there yet. “It’s a new company and they have many kinks to work out. When they are you’ll be the first to know it,” you lie.

Doing good work isn’t enough.

Nowadays, you need an imaginary Psychology degree to cope with people who decide what’s good enough or what they’re ready for…

Another way to skin this: Want to win your battle? Draw a diagram. Like a presentation—like the Powerpoint she uses in every meeting. Show the good emitting from the piece, and explain what bad will occur if she doesn’t chomp the bullet.

That’ll work until exhaustion sets in; you realize there will always be a startup needing to be talked into something. That’s when you run for the covers.

Keep Calm and Draw a Diagram

Keep Calm and Draw a Diagram

Who Gives a Hit?

“They called you directly—so that is not like you did anything!”

“We better get the credit for that!”

“Man, can you believe it? They bypassed us and just called our client.”

These scenarios are ridiculous at best, but they happen all too often in PR. They are about claiming the hit as opposed to working together to stay razor-thin-focused on the strategy of a client (or boss). After experiencing the above for years, I now stand firm that this is wrong. The next person who asks me whether or not it is our hit … will simply get hit.

No longer debatable, this tug of war is over with no clear winner. Nowadays, when the self-important blogger, big-time media, local daily, or eager President of the United States actually gets what you are trying to say — no matter how she got the news — it means you win. No more tactics over strategy. PR is about everyone working together to make it work. Contests are out, like Katie Perry and Taylor Swift.

This seems obvious?

Liar.

You, like me, are still trying to hide who did what from your payee.

That is what this post is about, even with 12 quite understandable lines of preamble. I am asking for a new way to work that says everyone (me too) will play from the same rule book for the first time, starting on the page entitled, How the hell are we going to get this thing to work?!

I want to experience the calendar date when a CNN producer calls an agency because he heard something somewhere and everyone rejoices. This is not happening. All I get is, We have to say that person was on our pitch list, as if that matters.

If that is what matters, then we are mere order takers. Pushily put, I want my people and yours to practice in a PR community where we create compelling messages that get folks hopping excited … even, nay especially, the other media who see it out there.

Who Gives a Hit? Working Together | RLM PR Blog

Simply: Stop shouting from the rooftops about who did what; just get energized by the mutual work. Remember that media begets media — it is that simple.

Then there is offline versus online credit—the nonsense about who got any given blogger to report about some new press release. I hear it said that the release running on a site triggered a Google Alert or RSS-seeker and thus the hit. That is poppycock.

Then, reviving a 70s reference, what is all this fuss about bloggers handing our stories to the major media? Such logic baffles me — more AP and Christian Science Monitor stories are quoted on blogs than any dead tree columnist would take time to read.

Finally, a gripe that needs no introduction: IR versus PR. When did investor vs. media become the norm? Neither thinks the other does anything that valuable, so when an IR rep gets media to act, the PR dudes say Gee, wait a minute! That is our contact. Reads funny, right? Come on people now, everybody get together… try to love.

The client who cares only about tactical hits — or upper manager breathing down your neck for another inch-thick clip book—needs to be slapped down. Show him the value of COMMUNICATING the fiercest ever message to all constituencies, with all the support that is muster-able. During this period of shrinking media and rising tempers, let us get a little Rodney King and work for the same goal—exposure that moves needles.