Power Players

Power Players: Shawna Seldon McGregor on The Green Rush Vs. the Dot-Com Bust

By Alex Halperin May 17, 2020
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Alex Halperin is the founder, editor and publisher of WeedWeek. Before he started covering marijuana legalization in 2014 he reported on topics such as fracking, health care, technology a...
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Alex Halperin is the founder, editor and publisher of WeedWeek. Before he started covering marijuana legalization in 2014 he reported on topics such as fracking, health care, technology and finance. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Slate, Fast Company, Quartz, the Washington Post, Mother Jones, The New Yorker and many other publications. His first book, The Cannabis Dictionary, was published in March. He lives in Los Angeles.
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This week’s Power Player’s interview is with  Shawna Seldon McGregor, who started Maverick Public Relations in 2018 after years at agencies in New York and Denver.  We discussed how successful PR relationships work, what attracts her to a brand and her frustrations with the cannabis mediascape.

Shawna and I have been dealing with each other for about five years now. We haven’t always agreed on everything, but I have a lot of respect for her smarts and tenacity.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Editor’s Note

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WeedWeek: Tell me about sort of your early conversations with a client and how you figure out whether or not you’re going to work together. To a large degree, I’d imagine you have your pick of clients.

Shawna Seldon McGregor: I started Maverick Public Relations because I wanted to do something different than I had experienced, which is just basically taking any client, whether or not they’re  a good fit for what I can offer. I look for clients who have something to say, they have a narrative, they have a real story, and are also disruptive. They’re providing something unique and different in the marketplace.

WW: What does that look like? There are a lot of brands out there, even high quality brands selling very similar products. What makes a company and its story exciting to you?

SSM: There are tons of consumer options out there, but really what makes a company is their brand’s story. The brand is more than just a recipe or a plan. It’s the voice of the company, it’s how the company is run, it’s the company culture. In a lot of cases that really is, how are they pushing the envelope?I really look for innovation first and then it’s definitely culture: What is that story, how unique it is and does it have heart and soul.

WW: When you find a client, and let’s assume they’re selling something that a lot of people are selling. How do you position them for success with journalists?

SSM: So PR lives under marketing, but it’s not marketing and it’s not advertising. I’m not paying you to regurgitate some sort of marketing message. So it has to be about telling a narrative and a story or providing service. So I ask questions like how is a brand different? Where is it available? Does it make sense for an outlet to be talking about this product?

Again, it’s not like, “Here’s this beautiful picture of this product and why we think it’s awesome.” It’s putting your product in the hands of a member of the media and they’re going to look at it and we understand that they might like some pieces and they might not like others, and they’re going to share that honestly and realistically with the world.

So that’s one of my first challenges. I’ve had a lot of clients come to me and say, “Well, can’t, they just do a story about this?” 

I’m trying to think of a good example of something that’s more of a marketing message or a full page ad in a magazine or a banner ad on a website than a story. A story is, one of the only women CEOs in the industry or someone’s corporate social responsibility program that is giving a significant amount of money to a food bank in their area. 

Where’s the heart and soul of this story and why does that make that company a part of the community? How fast are they growing? What are their metrics? What are their numbers? 

WW: What do you tell clients about dealing with journalists?

SSM: The first thing is that you have to be honest and transparent and not try to hide anything. You need to know that they are people too. We’re all human beings and this is a conversation. They’re not the enemy. A lot of clients get nervous talking to the media because they think the journalist or the media, or whoever, is out to do a hatchet job,and that’s rarely the case.

WW: At WeedWeek we publish some tough stories, but we don’t have a problem with the industry or selling marijuana. Do you and your clients encounter journalists who do, and how do you deal with them or you just sort of avoid them?

SSM: It’s getting much better. In 2014, when I first started doing this, I knew it was important and I knew that the media wanted to hear these stories, but when I started pitching, I didn’t know how they were going to react.  Across the board, all of the journalists and media outlets that I dealt with from 2014, all have been super interested, not negative. They really haven’t. 

The biggest challenge I faced was here in Denver, the Denver Business Journal would not cover cannabis. They just would not cover it. You lived in Denver for a while, I don’t know if you ever noticed that.

WW: They do now.

SSM: Now they do, because they have fresh blood. They have a new associate editor who understands that this is an important and massively growing sector of the Colorado and the Denver economy. That changed in the last two years. Before that, they wouldn’t cover it.

WW: I say a lot that I was once told point blank by a senior editor at the Wall Street Journal that they weren’t interested in this industry. That was probably about four years ago. And the Wall Street Journal is still, I think, largely uninterested in this industry. I think it’s a shame.

SSM: In particular with the Wall Street Journal, they’re interested in those 10 big market movers. When NASDAQ and New York Stock Exchange start accepting American companies onto the exchange, they’ll have a change of tune. In 2014, no other publicists would touch cannabis. Very few, very, very few. And now a lot of other folks are coming in and believe me, I can’t do all the work nor do I want to do all of the work so I welcome my colleagues. 

But there’s two sides to that story. In 2015, 2016 when I would reach out to media outlet, this was new and novel and they were really interested, I had less competition. Now there’s a lot more competition.

WW: You mean like mainstream PR agencies?

SSM: There are a  lot more people like me pitching mainstream media, whether it’s Bon Appétit or “The Today Show,” or the local Fox affiliate here. A lot of them might not have the best clients. That’s why I try to make myself a resource for reporters and producers so they know that they can call me like, “Do you have anyone who can talk on this topic?” And of course I will look at my client list, but at the end of the day, if I know someone who I think that they would be useful for them, I’ll make that introduction as well.

WW: What should a client know going into a relationship with a PR firm for that relationship to be successful?

SSM: First of all, there’s a lot of companies out there that say they do PR and they don’t. They throw spaghetti at the wall. They just have a list, God knows how old or whatever, of reporters and they send out a press release. Don’t get me wrong I do press releases too. I find the value in them, but that’s what they call PR.

What a potential client needs to be thinking about for who they might want to hire is number one, who am I going to be working with at this company? There’s a lot of companies out there that will have fancy biz dev people that come in and promise them the world and then they hire them and they never see those people again. 

So a company should be thinking about who is their day to day team [at the PR firm] that I’m going to be working with? What are my goals? What does a win look like? Who are my target audiences? 

WW: There’s a lot of blurriness in the cannabis world between earned and paid media. What are some of the misconceptions clients have about the difference?

SSM: I’m most frustrated by the pay to plays that look like earned media and cost a client however much money, but that isn’t properly identified [to the audience].

WW: Can you give a little more detail? You don’t necessarily have to name names.

SSM: Yeah. So there are “contributors” some who have gotten caught doing things like charging clients or having clients pay for inclusion in a story that looks like a piece of earned media in a very well-read news outlet or business news outlet. 

I’ve heard stories about people or companies being pitched to pay money, to be included on a list that is being presented as something where you’re being ranked on your merit. Well, actually, if you have $10,000 or $40,000, you can get onto that list [such as a “most influential” people.] That troubles me.

WW: At the moment there’s huge amounts of speculation about the health of the industry. A lot of companies are struggling, but sales seem to be up. From your vantage point, what can you tell us about who’s doing well and who’s struggling?

SSM: Everything about The Green Rush is reminiscent of the dot-com boom and bust in 2000, 2001. If you don’t learn from history, you’re doomed to repeat it. Good business is good business. Do you have a real company with a real consumer demand and are you financially healthy? Is your balance sheet healthy? Do you have good business ethics?

Ethics are everything. At the end of the day, all you have are your good business practices and if you are treating your vendors or your partners like garbage or you’re not paying your bills, that’s going to come back to haunt you. We’re going through a very difficult time right now. There will be winners and losers. The winners will have solid business strategies and plans and products that are unique and disruptive enough, with a culture and narrative that will speak to their target audiences.

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Alex Halperin
Editor/Publisher