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Getting exposure for cannabis-related stories and companies is really hard.
Even as more U.S. states move toward legalization, cannabis remains illegal on a federal level. And, while other countries have legalized cannabis nation-wide, laws around promotion and advertising are still very stringent, as most governments are still uncomfortable with the notion of marijuana consumption being promoted overtly – even for medical uses.
Down a similar road, advertising and promotion on social media is also very limited, as evidenced by this lawsuit against Facebook. In other words, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to pay for exposure on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.
Meanwhile, traditional, mainstream media outlets and prominent news websites will often refuse to cover marijuana-related stories. And, when they do run with cannabis-relates pieces, they tend to make a joke of them, recurring to excessive punning and misinformed, self-proclaimed experts as sources.
In this context, businesses and public relations agents have to get creative when pitching journalists. And, while creativity is certainly appreciated, there are some practices that seem to have become customary, and just piss reporters and editors off.
Seeking to help cannabis and hemp businesses better land the right kind of press coverage, I reached out to the most prominent cannabis journalists, writing for outlets ranging from Business Insider and Rolling Stone, to Forbes and The Guardian, and asked them to weigh in on their pet peeves.
Below are the things you should try avoid at all costs, and some advice from leading journalists on how to reach them and convince them to cover your story.
1) Calling Yourself A ‘Leader’ – Or Something Similar
If you were a leader, we’d know.
Journalists make a living off knowing what’s what in the space they cover. This means that most adjectives are not needed when pitching.
Leader, premium, premier, thought leader, purest, highest quality, first-of-its-kind, groundbreaking, disruptive, trailblazer… These are attributes someone else should be assigning your company or client. It’s not really up to you to decide this.
“Actually, making claims about a product that are untrue or not supported by solid data,” is generally bad, says Alex Halperin, cannabis columnist for The Guardian and founder of WeedWeek. So, unless you have number to back your claims, just keep them to yourself; or use them to motivate your team – but not to pitch journalists.
Now, planning on being a leader is a whole different story, adds Debra Borchardt, CEO of Green Market Report, published on Forbes, L.A. Times, CNBC, Yahoo Finance, The Street, and others.
Plans paint a story that is not of interest to readers: Everyone plans for success, everyone wants to “raise $10 million to build out a state-of-the-art facility in California.”
That’s not news. Completing the raise or the build out, is.
Remember wording is everything when crafting and transmitting your story.
Sara Brittany Somerset, a cannabis writer featured on Forbes, Motley Food, and Civilized, among others, brings up the example of the phrase “dominating the industry,” which honestly just comes across as bizarre.
“Whatever you say, 50 Shades of CBD,” Somerset teases.
While all in good fun, do remember that phrase next time you’re picking the words you’ll use to describe your company.
As a sort of conclusion for this first item, best-selling book author, managing editor of Green Chip Stocks, and Benzinga Cannabis columnist Jeff Siegel recommends you “don’t talk crap about other companies in an attempt to make your company seem superior. If your service or product is superior, you don’t need to criticize your competition for me to figure it out. Plus, it’s just in poor taste and makes me question your motives.”
2) Not Knowing About The Reporter’s Work And Their Beat
It’s as easy as Googling us.
In other words: figure out what we write about and what picks are interest before contacting us.
For instance, if you’re pitching Tom Angell, a 15-year veteran of the cannabis law reform movement who founded Marijuana Moment and is published constantly on Forbes, The L.A. Times, The Boston Globe, and others, don’t open with “in case you missed this news.”
He most likely hasn’t; if you followed him, you’d know that. This is especially bad when the pitch is “about a policy development that I actually scooped days earlier,” he says.
Jeremy Berke, a cannabis-focused finance reporter at Business Insider, reveals this is one of the things that “grinds his gears” the most, urging people to check out his recent work before pitching him.
“For example, I wrote a story about CBD testing. The time to pitch me on CBD lab test results isn’t the day after I post a story that took a week of work. You missed your chance.”
Beyond understanding individual writers, it’s important you comprehend the journalistic community and landscape as a whole.
This translates loosely to: don’t get greedy. If you were recently featured on a big publication, wait a few weeks for the next. If you are going to pitch a story to one reporter or outlet, don’t pitch it to another 10 at the same time.
Cannabis journalists don’t like to compete with each other for attention. We are a community and want to see everyone in it thrive, along with the movement we support. We have a cause that’s bigger than any one of us.
3) Calling Yourself “The Amazon/Apple Of Weed”
Being “the someone of something else” is already sad on its own. But it’s even worse when your claims are not substantiated.
- Why are you the Apple of weed?
- What makes you the Amazon of marijuana?
- Why do you call yourself the Coca-Cola of pot?
Similar is the case for calling your retail location “the Apple Store Of Cannabis” or something similar. No muy bueno.As a few smart people pointed out in the past, an over-crowded retail location, selling one brand of high-priced products is not an ideal setting for consumers, especially for medical cannabis consumers, who need variety and affordable prices.
And, don’t get me wrong, I love Apple products. But I very much echo the feeling here. Cannabis and Apple computers have very little in common.
Michael Miller, a 30 year Wall Street veteran, cannabis editor at L.A. Weekly, and host of the CannaBusiness podcast, shares a final P.S. if you will: “Cannabis is a plant. Not a technology platform”
4) Sending Impersonal Or Generic Pitches
We appreciate you sharing your good news with us. However, long, impersonal messages opening with phrases like “Dear Editor,” are very off-putting.
They ultimately flood our inboxes and make us not want to cover your current of future news.
It’s even worse when you get the writer’s name wrong, adds Madison Margolin, features editor at Civilized, published on VICE, Rolling Stone, and many other mass media outlets.
“Sometimes people pitching me forget to change the name on the email and use the name of another journalist; or they get my name wrong – they often call me Morgan or Meghan instead of Madison; they leave my name blank – where it’s obvious they forgot to fill it in; or reference a story I didn’t write,” she says.
Jon Cappetta, vice president of content at High Times, Dope Magazine, and Culture, is also very bothered by this. “There’s no quicker way to turn me off than to spell my name wrong. It will literally dictate whether or not I even open your email. That said, speaking my language makes all the difference.”
Length is also very important. If you’re story is good enough, you should be able to pitch it in two paragraphs or less.
In line with generic pitches, are generic comments.
Alex Oleinic, Benzinga Cannabis staff writer featured on Entrepreneur, Yahoo Finance, MarketWatch, and others, brings up the piggybacking example: “Imagine a state legalizes recreational weed. Then company X issues a statement where the CEO is quoted as saying, ‘It’s nice that the state legalized recreational cannabis. We at Company X already have 15 dispensaries in 5 other states and 10 product lines, etc.’”
In line with Oleinic, Andrew Ward another staff writer for Benzinga Cannabis, also published on AOL, Civilized, Cannabis Culture, High Times, and others, adds says he’s bothered by people piggybacking on unrelated queries he sends out.
“For example, I put out a HARO request for chefs in NYC infusing foods with cannabis. However, I got pitches for pet CBD… This makes me feel as if the people sending these pitches don’t respect my time and will just slide into my inbox anyway they can.”
5) Offering Compensation
Never. Offer. Compensation.
This one is probably the worst of all in the list of journalists’ pet peeves.
The media outlets we write for pay us. Taking money from anyone else is completely unethical. As Michael Miller of L.A. Weekly puts it: “It’s essential to be objective. Subjectivity diminishes credibility. The reader should be the one in the position to have an opinion not the company.
“It should be a compelling story, not an infomercial.”This does not mean that you can’t pay for coverage anywhere. But be careful and find out which websites are “pay-for-plays” with proper, easy to find disclosures. Those sites can take your money in exchange for coverage; but real journalists, serving readers and not their employers’ financial interests, can’t.
6) Crossing The Line Between Persistence And Harassment
One follow-up is enough. Two or more follow-ups… just don’t.
Or, to put this in hip-hop lingo: know the difference between a fan and a “Stan.”
Commenting on the issue, Sara Brittany Somerset asks people to respect reporters’ work/life balance. She explains reporters have to keep their phones on 24 hours a day in case of breaking news. However, she adds, breaking means “Osama Bin Laden has been apprehended; not CBD for cats.
“Gmail has a schedule/send feature. Use it,” she recommends.
7) Offering Unrequested Or Unwarranted Calls
Just like you, your bosses, and your employees, reporters are busy people who can’t afford to hop on a call with every person who reaches out.
In fact, most reporters “can get to anyone on their own,” explains Andre Bourque, cannabis reporter published on Forbes, Entrepreneur, HuffPost, and others. So, a pitch that reads “I’d be happy to connect you with XXX” rarely comes in handy.
“An original, non-templated quote or statement is handy, however. We don’t want to be writing what others are already reporting with a canned quote from a press release. Give us something authentic,” he adds, returning to the point about generic comments.
Seeking to help PR professionals deal with this, Bourque shares an example of an account manager who “took the time to conduct an actual interview with the client and provide the original Q&A within the first email… Now, suddenly, as a writer, I have enough information to work with to formulate a position or story. A whole lot of back-and-forth is eliminated, and I now know the client at a deeper level.”
Finally, Green Market Report’s Debra Borchardt gets into breaking news. She says pitching a source for a breaking news item and asking to schedule an interview doesn’t work.
“If the story is breaking and timely, include a ready to publish quote and your chances of getting your client/company included go up dramatically,” she counsels.
8) Using Excessive Punning
A pun here and there is O.K. – we all fall prey to that temptation. But not every pitch, story, and subhead needs to be funny.
I actually broke down this particular topic in a High Times article a while back, including a list of 35 types of cannabis-related puns I suggest you try avoid as much as possible.
We mean, we get it already: you just can’t stop making “reefer-ences,” but you want to be really blunt…
Cannabis businesses are growing like weeds, this is a budding industry, it’s high times for cannabis stocks, and it’s also high time we legalize weed.
Guess what: joint ventures or efforts don’t compel you to “intend the pun.” In fact, no serious topic does.
So, please be thoughtful before making serious issues risible. We rarely want you to be joking about topics that are really important to us, often involving people’s lives, criminal justice, financial inclusion, etc.
Think of it this way, Cannabis Culture’s Jodie Emery suggests in the article mentioned above: “When it comes to any other crime, like murder, rape, assault or theft, nobody jokes about that.” So, “when it comes to people being arrested for marijuana,” don’t be making jokes either, she asks.
9) Trying To Trick Us Into Featuring You
Tricking journalists into featuring your company or clients is never a good idea. We will eventually find out and, not only not want to cover your news any more, but also make sure other reporters in the field know about these practices.
Here are some of the most widely used tricks:
- Presenting old events as news.
- Sending quotes that were already featured elsewhere, claiming they are “just for you.”
- Sharing worthless data in an attempt to make non-news look “news-y.”
Natán Ponieman, a cannabis writer featured on High Times, Leafly, Civilized, and others, further elaborates on wrong ways to pitch a story.
“I’d say what annoys me the most is to constantly be presented with products that don’t really have anything special about them.”
While these products might sell well on shelves, nobody is interested in reading about just another CBD oil brand with a tiny marketing twist like “the brand is family-owned,” he explains. Down this line, he recommends PR agents to “think less about the brand they’re representing, and more about the audience.
“Whatever they pitch to us, we have to pitch to our editors. So, we’ll only try and sell a story if we believe is has value for the audience. If the answer to ‘why should this news be published?’ is, ‘because it will help my brand sell better,’ then you’re thinking about it the wrong way. Of course you love the brand… it’s paying for your rent. But try to think why should anyone else (who is not hired by the company) be interested in it.”
Adding to this point, Jeremy Berke argues that “trying to control the narrative to the point where your client doesn’t sound like a real person” does not work either.
He suggests you are very careful speaking with reporters too. “We don’t like to retroactively change quotes to dry them out and make them more precise, even if your client misspoke. If you decide to take our calls, make sure you know that what’s on the record, stays on the record. Anything we do beyond that is a courtesy – and up to our discretion.”
10) Being Generally Lazy, Unethical, Disrespectful, or Ungrateful
A few other things you should avoid when interacting with cannabis journalists, as they clearly show you are either lazy, unethical, disrespectful, or out-right ungrateful, are:
- Asking for referrals: Our business, reporting, same as yours, relies heavily on personal relationships. Reaching out to our sources every time a company wants a new client will damage our networks and undermine the trust we build.
- Asking what we’re working on: Pitching is your job, not ours.
- Asking for unwarranted links: We can’t link back to your company’s website just because. Unless it’s an actual source, a report, a study, or another article, links are not warranted. A mention of your company in a big media outlet is enough; but quotes and links are not like Mc. Donald’s meals – fries and a drink are not included.
- Asking why you weren’t included in a published story: Choosing who to feature is a journalist’s prerogative. We only respond to our readers.
- Not following instructions provided by the reporter: Instructions and suggestions are certainly not orders. So, you can definitely choose to ignore them. Just know your chances of being featured decrease as you fail to adjust to a reporter’s needs.
Although this story might come across as a bunch of cannabis journalists just wining about menial details, it is not. It is intended to help you, businessperson, PR professional, entrepreneur, land the press coverage you very much need.
Hope it comes in handy.
Disclosure: I write or have written for many of the media outlets mentioned in this article. Seeking to remain unbiased, I only spoke with journalists, editors, and content directors, but not to media business owners or big shareholders. This means this article does not seek to reflect the interests of any one particular media outlet, but rather the concerns voiced by some of the leading journalists in the cannabis industry. In the spirit of full disclosure, however, you can find a list of most of the media outlets that have published my work in the past on MuckRack.
June 14, 2019 at 02:04PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs