7 Tips for Working With the Media (and Why You Should)

Features - The Tips Issue - Marketing

December 5, 2016

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Because cannabis has been federally illegal for decades, cultivators kept their craft in basements or other hidden locales, and certainly didn’t distribute a press release when they reached key milestones. But as legalization has made a slow, yet steady march across states, news outlets have taken notice. The fact is, these news sources want to share cultivators’ stories, but the industry as a whole remains hesitant. Why and how should you tell your story? Here are a few tips to help make you more comfortable with the process.

1. The media is your ally. Many cultivators are reluctant to share their stories with the media. There is the discomfort that goes with an industry that is just legalizing in a drumbeat of states, but that is still federally illegal. There is also a concern that the subject will end up at the receiving end of a biased hatchet job. In my nearly two decades of handling media relations, close to 100 percent of my interactions with media have been positive. Of course, you must do your homework (more on that in Tip No. 4), but sharing your story is a critical step toward normalizing the industry.

The more we can present the cannabis industry as the real business sector that it is, and report on the fact that it is thriving, the more likely mainstream communities will begin to understand and accept it. The more coverage the industry receives, the more comfortable other sectors will become, and begin moving toward providing service (think banking and insurance). And likely, you have a great story to tell: Most cannabis professionals have a strong, authentic reason for getting into the cannabis industry — for example, they have seen the relief that marijuana can provide those who are suffering, or they are deeply passionate about agriculture.

Most importantly, if you don’t tell your story, someone else will. Often businesses fear revealing their secret sauce or are concerned about pending regulations. But if you can’t or won’t provide a statement or input on a news story, the journalist will need to find someone else who can fill in the blanks. Then you have missed your opportunity to share your message, or even worse, someone else might get the credit for your hard work, or the writer might just get it wrong altogether. There are always ways to communicate your story without fully revealing your intellectual property.

You also can use stories about yourself as marketing tools to convey your brand’s legitimacy (e.g., “as featured in Fortune magazine”).

2. Identify your goals. You didn’t launch your business without a business plan, and you shouldn’t conduct earned media (public relations/publicity) or paid media (advertising) without a strategy. What do you want to achieve? Are you looking for investors? Partners to enter emerging markets? Do you want to be known for your grow’s cutting-edge technology or a key tenet such as chemical-free cultivation? If you have a marketing plan and a paid advertising strategy, you must have a communications strategy that supports it. Earned media is an essential component of market positioning. Your business’ goals can help you decide whether you should comment on a story. These goals, such as reaching potential partners or positioning your company as a technology leader, can also help you determine on which stories you are best suited to respond.

You may also have a desire to help advance the industry or effect change in policy. Offering insight into the contributions that your company makes to the community, and sharing the faces of your employees help to educate policy makers, regulators, the industry and the general public (voters).

3. Provide service, not sales jargon. It is vital that every company spokesperson truly understands the difference between paid media (again, advertising) and earned media (news coverage). When you buy advertising, you control exactly what your message is and how it is conveyed. You can run the ad as many times as you want. You can change the creative when you desire. News stories are different from advertising in how they are perceived. Because you cannot pay for coverage, news articles impart a level of credibility. But you don’t have as much control on the outcome.

Opportunities to weigh in on news stories include trends, such as energy efficiency and automation, and breaking news such as policy and regulations. How does your company fit into emerging trends? Can you comment on breaking news? What makes your company exceptional? How did you get to where you are today? Sharing your background can position you as an industry leader and make you a valuable contributor to a news story.

4. Know who you’re talking to and have a plan. Remember when I mentioned the fear of ending up on the wrong end of a biased or negative interview? This scenario can be avoided if you have a standard operating procedure in place for all media requests. Have one point person in your organization responsible for all media requests. This person should find out who the reporter is and what kind of stories she has written in the past, what outlet the journalist is reporting for, what angle she is taking in her story and any expected questions, and determine her deadline. Then you can determine the best company representative to speak with the journalist. Does the journalist want to talk about business growth? It might be the CEO. Do they want to know how you handle pest management? Maybe the lead cultivator is the best option.

Once you have been designated to provide the interview, take 15 minutes to get up to speed on who you will be speaking with. Read some of the journalist’s recent stories or watch the last few episodes, if it’s a television program. Not only will the reporter appreciate it, but knowing who you are talking to will make a huge difference in the success of your interview.

Focus on key messages. Prepare yourself by identifying three or four of the most important points to be made about the topic. This will help you focus and be able to succinctly answer your interviewer’s questions. You also want to identify for which medium you will be interviewed: print, web, radio or TV (taped, live, satellite). Each medium offers its own opportunities and challenges. In order to have the best experience possible for both you and the journalist, make sure that you know exactly what is expected from you. Know when you need to be at the studio for a live shot, and don’t be late. Understand when the reporter’s deadline is, and meet it. Offering images for print stories, if there’s no time or budget for the news outlet to send a photographer, can help tell your story. Journalists will sometimes fact-check information with you, so you can volunteer to be available for further questions or fact-checks if the journalist wishes. However, don’t ask to approve the entire story in advance of publication.

5. Keep your media contacts in-the-know. If a tree falls in the woods and nobody’s there to hear it, did it really happen? You could have the most successful cultivation program, or have discovered a breakthrough technology or process that has allowed you to achieve new benchmarks, but if you don’t communicate these successes with the media and the rest of the industry, the information becomes siloed. Look for opportunities to share milestones. Announce partnerships, new staff appointments and promotions. Many news outlets will share these pieces of business news in roundup sections. But more importantly, outreach to the reporter may spark an idea for a larger story or inclusion in a story on which a reporter is currently working.

Identify breaking news that you can comment on, such as pest management or water issues, to tell your story to the media. Offer to meet for a coffee briefing to provide background on what your company is doing and to learn what stories the reporter is following. Keep a list of reporters who you have met at events, have covered your company in the past, have reached out to you for interviews, or whose reporting you admire. Keep them updated on news from your company.

6. Leverage all channels including social media. Today, public relations and communications expands beyond traditional media relations. Share your story on social media channels such as LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat. Follow journalists and favorite news outlets. Share their reporting with your followers, both when they cover you and when they cover compelling topics. Start a dialogue.

Other opportunities for earned media include sharing your knowledge through bylined articles or point-of-view/Op-Eds.

7. Practice makes perfect. It is natural to be nervous the first time you conduct an interview, but the more you do it, the easier it gets. I have found that most questions asked during an interview are questions that you answer every day with customers, regulators, staff and investors. You’re the expert. Have confidence and show it.

Shawna McGregor is senior vice president of The Rosen Group, a public relations agency based in New York City.