Looking to cash in on New York’s coming green wave? Here are some PR tips from an industry pro

By Jordan Isenstadt | April 22, 2021

It is clear to even the most casual observer that cannabis reform is having a moment. Back in November, voters in Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota all overwhelmingly approved ballot measures to legalize adult-use or medical cannabis. And in just the last few weeks, Virginia, New York, and New Mexico have all legalized adult-use cannabis.

If you do the math a total of 36 states, along with Washington D.C. and three territories, have some form of legal cannabis, adult-use or medicinal, on the books. That means that a majority of Americans live in a state with legal cannabis and nearly three-quarters of states in the union are openly disregarding federal prohibition.

With dollar signs in mind, many are turning their attention to the Empire State now that New York is finally joining the adult-use marketplace or has at least started to take steps towards a fully operational marketplace. But beware – cannabis is still a relatively immature, state-by-state affair with a patchwork of regulations that differ wildly from state to state. As a result, it is not possible to have a national cannabis marketing or business development strategy. Every market is incredibly different with distinct politics, influencers, and regulations. Additionally, federal prohibition provides another layer of complication, barring cannabis companies from engaging in traditional advertising tactics, like digital marketing campaigns.

New York’s cannabis regulations are also some of the most progressive laws in the country. Rather than a market dominated by a few vertically integrated multi-state operators, New York’s program is going to allow for the creation of thousands of new businesses at all points of the supply chain.

While some may see this as a disadvantage, it gives those who are willing to invest the time, effort, and money into growing and developing the market the upper hand. Those who expend the energy laying the groundwork will ultimately be better positioned to break through the noise of an increasingly crowded market. But where does one start?

  • Build Your Knowledge Base – To jump into the New York marketplace, you must do your homework. It is critical that you know the history of the state cannabis program and are up to date on all regulations in the adult-use program. Familiarize yourself with the major business organizations who represent the industry, such as the New York Cannabis Growers & Processors Association and the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association, as well as prominent advocates for legalization and social justice, including the Drug Policy Alliance, REVEL and High NY. Get to know the cannabis beat reporters at state-wide outlets and subscribe to relevant local and trade cannabis newsletters, such as the Tap Root newsletter and Marijuana Moment. Finally, follow New York regulators, elected officials, and business leaders on social media to ensure you are always in the know.
  • Solidify Your Network – Although the last year has been challenging from a networking perspective and the outlook for the remainder of 2021 remains unclear, use this time as an opportunity to make friends and allies throughout New York. Introduce yourself to business leaders, advocates, regulators, and elected officials and arrange time to learn more about them, their organizations, and their goals for the state. Engage with key stakeholders via social media. Sign up for virtual networking events and webinars. Depending on your business, consider building some ties to specific communities and join local chambers of commerce.
  • What’s Your Why? – Aside from a desire to make money, you must be able to clearly communicate why you are looking to get in on the green rush. What are your personal motivations? Did a relative with cancer or epilepsy find comfort through cannabis treatment? Do you want to right the wrongs of the war on drugs? Whatever the reason, you must identify your “why” in order to build an authentic brand or offering. If you don’t have a “why,” then create one and stand by it. Modern consumers are looking for passion and authenticity – and they can spot a fake.
  • Think Like a Local – New York’s regulations, stakeholders, and cannabis business infrastructure is all vastly different from any other market and as a result, it is necessary for any new entrant or operator to localize their messaging. Commit to your community. If you make the effort to invest in them, they will invest in you. Not only will this continue to build your New York story, but it will simultaneously build strong relationships that will solidify your place in the market.
  • Use Your Expertise – Whether it is an expertise in retail, construction, cultivation, or wellness, position yourself as a thought leader in the sector through the media and amongst your peers. This can take shape in the form of bylines, owned website content, sponsored content, and spots on panels. The more you show your expertise and become a known name in the Empire State, the sooner you will be able to make valuable connections and get to business.
  • Get Ready to Launch – Now that you have laid the groundwork, built your network, established your why, and shown your expertise, it is time to officially launch your company. Depending on your slice of the industry and your business development approach, a launch can take many forms. Regardless, you need to let your audience know that you are available and open for business. This can include digital tactics, such as SEO, organic social media, paid advertising campaigns, owned blog content, and sponsored content. Additionally, you can integrate earned media tactics including press releases, media events, and creative storytelling to media.

Whether you decide to handle your communication operations internally or outsource it to an agency, it is vital that you take public relations and marketing seriously from the beginning. All too often companies choose to completely ignore investing in communications in favor of business development, only to regret it later.

As a rule, consumer products should invest upwards of ten percent of revenue on public relations and marketing. Considering the built-in challenges posed by federal prohibition, the cannabis industry should arguably invest more than traditional industries in PR and marketing. Ultimately, public relations is about sending the right messages to the right people in the right places to create a stronger brand reputation. When building a business and entering a new market, what else could be more important?

Jordan Isenstadt is a Senior Vice President at New York City based public relations agency, Marino. Jordan leads a team focused on a burgeoning portfolio of cannabis-focused brands and founded the Cannabis Media Lab, an accelerator for emerging cannabis startups. Prior to his current role, Jordan worked for the New York State Legislature, as well as two New York State Governors. To reach out directly to Jordan, email him at [email protected].