You are here: Home / Op-Ed / The cannabis industry needs to rethink the entire approach to its lobbying and public affairs efforts.  Now.... The cannabis industry needs to rethink the entire approach to its lobbying and public affairs efforts.  Now.

Whereas any of the specific steps I suggest below may be debateable, there is one overwhelming conclusion the industry needs to take to heart: If the cannabis industry was a business, the CEO and the Board would fire whoever is responsible for its lobbying and public affairs campaign.  I hope the specific action steps suggested below encourage a much-needed industry-wide discussion rather than spark defensive reactions motivated by self-interests.  The broad goal:  build political clout, financial efficiency and more potent messaging for our industry and all the players in it. 

I have not written this casually, but with the benefit of more than five decades in the public relations and communications industry. I have witnessed and been part of the growth of several industries and the important role trade associations have played in their success and growth.  My clients have included some of the nation’s largest associations.  I have worked in very close collaboration with lobbying firms representing various industries.  I have helped create and execute major public affairs campaigns.  And, perhaps most importantly, like you, I’d like to see my individual and our collective success come quicker and with more certainty. So, here goes:

  1. Take the campaign to the grassroots rather than the congressional staffers. About 6-in-10 Americans say cannabis use should be legalized, according to Pew Research at the end of 2018 — plus support is growing. There is something very special about the people who support this change: they vote!  The threat that such a substantial share of the electorate will vote against a politician if they do not support cannabis liberalization is much more powerful than an insightful presentation by a lobbyist in a Congressman’s office. I’m not suggesting that the industry’s lobbying campaign has been for naught — indeed, much has been accomplished. But the industry needs to be sobered by the April 24, 2019 Vice assertion that we are “burning millions on DC lobbyists and getting nowhere.”  The industry needs to understand that lobbying isn’t the be-all and end-all of political processes.  Elections are.  And with 60%+ support of voters, we should focus our resources on mobilizing our supporters to elect politicians we want rather than trying to convince current legislators who are anti-cannabis to change their minds.   
  2. Emulate the Autism Speaks campaign. There is no question among the public, journalists and politicians about who speaks for those concerned about autism: Autism Speaks.  That organization spent $380,000 in lobbying expenses in all of 2018 — that’s about 20 percent of the $9 million the cannabis industry has spent on lobbying just thus far this year.   Ask yourself a simple question: if you could have the awareness and clout of Autism Speaks or the awareness and clout of the cannabis industry, which would you choose?  Duh.  We should put more money in a campaign to coalesce the 60%+ of voters who support better cannabis laws and redeploy someof the money spent on the current lobbying campaign to that goal.  There are lots of reasons for this, but one very simple basic fact:  The lobbying approach largely ignores the wide-spread and passionate support at the grass roots, which is the most powerful asset cannabis has going for it.  When politicians see that the pro-cannabis community is unified, they will have to acknowledge, respect and even fear the power of cannabis supporters at the polls.  Then, they will legislate accordingly.
  3. All campaigns need to promote unified messaging, starting with a simple positioning statement that is immediately and intuitively understandable. The Consumer Technology Association banners that “we stand for innovation and the promise of technology.”  Pretty simple and understandable, right?  Now, tell me what the cannabis industry stands for.  The first function of any branding campaign is to clearly define the key messages and promulgate them within the industry and to its outside stakeholders.  Our industry has a lot of catch-up to do.
  1. Eliminate unjustifiable redundancies between associations. Open Secrets, which keeps tracks of lobbying campaigns of all industries, lists 11 organizations that are spending money on behalf of cannabis issues.  A total of 56 lobbyists.   Do we really need separate lobbying campaigns conducted by separate associations?  Do we really need that many association CEOs? Do we need to pay for personnel who undertake similar functions for associations that share the same goal?  How about separate offices and publications for each association?  Do we need each of those organizations competing for their lobbying money from the same donors?  If you ran the cannabis industry as a business, would you tolerate such inefficiencies?  Why does our industry tolerate it?
  1. Consolidate separate projects in separate organizations. When a journalist or politico needs information about cannabis or an industry point of view, whom do they call?  Each of the associations compete to position themselves as the “go-to” source for information and points of view.  There should be oneassociation that is tapped to fulfill that role — then consolidate all the PR and communications pros into that one powerhouse communications team and turn them loose with one cohesive strategy and coordinated tactics!  Similarly, assign the lobbying program to one association.  Another association should be turned into a powerful public affairs machine.  Let one association assume leadership on R&D issues, quality and testing issues, and advocating medical and other benefits to the public. By so doing, each association can develop their own credibility, experts and institutional expertise. Once that is achieved, merge all the associations into one unified and powerful organization that focuses on the industry’s priority issues, thereby boosting the chances of success on those issues. 
  1. Create and build a simple but dynamic web presence, including one great site that is married to a social media program. Take a look at org— it’s a great model.  Build the site and the social media campaign so that state or local cannabis associations can use the same template and push the same culture and messaging, wherever appropriate.  That will dramatically extend the reach and frequency of the cannabis messages.
  2. Next Step: Call an association and industry leadership summit. Our industry has grown substantially at a pace of growth that may ultimately make it the fastest growing industry in the history of the world.  There’s a lot that we have done right as an industry.  But now it is time to get ready for our next stage of growth.  This summit should bring together all the associations and leadership from players of all sizes in all industry segments.  Their first meeting should have two goals:  1) identify the priority issues and 2) craft the messaging that will help us win those issues.  Then, the organizational issues will become clear.  Such a meeting will require a lot of ego to be hung outside the room, but the benefit will be well worth the effort.

About The Author:

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MJ Shareholders is the largest dedicated financial network and leading corporate communications firm serving the legal cannabis industry. Our network aims to connect public marijuana companies with these focused cannabis audiences across the US and Canada that are critical for growth: Short and long term cannabis investors Active funding sources Mainstream media Business leaders Cannabis consumers

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