As cannabis companies work to stay afloat in the most brutal marketplace of all time, they also have to battle against big-money PR firms attempting to carve a spot out for their press release weed on the top shelf.
The term Press Release Weed was something I first kicked around in jest. I couldn’t put a date on it and someone else probably said it before I did, given the idea is so basic. Regardless, it’s generally the idea of a public relations apparatus being used to define the quality of the product as opposed to what’s in the jar.
It’s fair to say the idea is a decade old. Some of the original cannabis PR firms are turning 10. A bunch of New York and LA firms have joined them in the space over the years. At first, it was fun back in the day to mock the obvious boof. But it took a turn into the darkness.
The bullshitters only had so many places to prove they had the heat. Back then, the top dogs could see through their fake hype. The High Times crew back in the day, Leafly’s California Bureau Chief David Downs, and a few other small- to medium-sized publications that came and went over the years, like West Coast Cannabis were great examples of people who knew great pot.
Things Go Mainstream
Downs would help kick off the nation’s first cannabis column at a paper of record. That was dope for the real heat getting some shine. But Hearst created a separate business entity to handle weed money for the San Francisco Chronicle and sister site SFGate in 2011, so people will mistakenly point to the founding of The Cannabist in Denver a few years later as the first “mainstream media” cannabis column.
But as cannabis got its first mainstreamer with an actual radar for quality, the tide of random weed blogs picked up. Every month, more and more cannabis blogs would be on a quest for content. Many of them were backboned by random dudes and ladies in the flyovers who didn’t actually have access to heat. Others would be in California or Oregon, but the spotlight seemed to trend very local and sometimes on part of a clique.
It was kind of like the allegory of the cave. The bulk of the new cannabis media could only see the weed in front of them, mostly boof – they couldn’t possibly articulate the mountaintop that never made it to shelves. In many cases, that fire never made it to the legal market since it was super valuable to stay in the underground if you actually grow crazy good pot.
Why Understanding the Heat Matters
Even though you can’t write about this pot in a consumer sense – I can’t send grandma to the trap, no matter how dope Billy’s first RS-11 run was – it’s important to see that cannabis. People writing about pot need to understand how close the legal market’s best is getting to that point after the dealing hurdles of regulation. It’s the most fundamental basis for what the best rec weed is at any given moment.
It’s fair to say the lack of access would become a double-edged sword. In the void of access to the best in the world or even the above-average, people started to take what they could get. A press release with a strain that none of the other 30 cannabis blogs of the moment had covered was like a juicy steak. Throw in some free pot? It was like a juicy steak after winning Survivor.
As the outlets were starved for clicks as the competition expanded, it got even worse. Then the PR teams that repped the boof would create little flash sales sheets for the sales reps to bring into the dispensary. “As seen in,” now a selling point.
Has that place it was seen in ever even been to the mountaintop? Likely not.
And this became the cookie-cutter campaign. Eventually, slotting fees became a thing, then people with boofy products could buy shelf space. This would make the PR push even more critical and heavy out of the gate to justify those fees.
The fees compounded the problem, but aren’t everywhere. As I always tell dispensary owners, you can try and be the best in the world or you can have slotting fees.
The Journalist’s Take
We reached out to some people who are specifically affiliated with world-class pot to get their thoughts. Jon Cappetta from High Times has had one of the most prolific series covering elite pot in recent years.
“Just like there’s press release weed, there are press release journalists. It’s the easy way out – if it can even actually be considered doing the work,” Cappetta told L.A. Weekly. “That’s why knowing and trusting who you’re reading is on par with the importance of knowing where your weed comes from. Most people take the easy way out, so naturally this stuff will proliferate, but it’s why we don’t usually cover stuff that has a release to begin with at High Times – everyone will have the easy story. Rehash news is the lowest possible priority for our team.
The Actual Heat
Ted Lidie of Alien Labs finds himself in a unique situation where other people are essentially paying to pretend their weed is on the same shelf as his team.
“It definitely sucks for brands like us that pump out quality at scale, while we get overlooked for guys with PR agencies while also barely being able to use social media because they also don’t really accept us,” Lidie told L.A. Weekly.
Lidie went on to elaborate on the scale of the social media PR wars as well connected agencies dabbling in cannabis use their wider contacts to get their clients the almighty blue checkmark. All the while bootstrapped efforts that have focused on the heat and not the corporate media game can barely keep their accounts open.
“Meanwhile MSOs not only get coverage from their PR firms in nationally recognized publications but also use that coverage to get blue checks and are able to skirt the social media guidelines,” Lidie said. “The disparity in truly corporate cannabis and guys that started in their garages goes way beyond access to licenses and capital.”
We’re Not Buying It
Joey Sullivan serves on The Emerald Cup competition committee and is one of the largest bulk buyers in the state in his role at Mercy Wellness. He pointed to education at the consumer level being the real fix.
“It makes me feel like we have a lot of work to do when it comes to educating consumers, and it goes to show just how much marketing has played a role in driving what sells post legalization,” Sullivan told L.A. Weekly.
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