Survive and Thrive: Shawna McGregorEvery Friday in Survive and Thrive, we talk to communicators who are not just surviving, but thriving. Between COVID-19, reopenings and then rolling back, kids home from school…maybe forever (?), working from home, and not touching another human being for months, most of us are surviving, at best.

But what about those who are surviving AND thriving?

Perhaps they added a new revenue source or followed a passion or are taking a sabbatical or discovered they actually love homeschooling or completely changed careers. Today we talk to Shawna McGregor, the founder of Maverick PR, about how she’s making the best of the worst crisis in a century.

As 2020 began, we prepared for a record-breaking year in the cannabis industry.

Several states would be voting for medical or adult-use legalization and an epic 4/20 holiday was fast approaching, with the entire month of April 2020 representing.

The economy was booming and the upcoming presidential election held the promise of change, including the potential for full federal legalization of cannabis.

March 2020: The Great Pause

Then COVID-19 hit.

Overnight, global conferences such as SXSW and Natural Products Expo West, the world’s biggest natural foods trade show, were canceled.

Workplaces, schools, and most businesses shut down with little notice as public health and government officials scrambled to determine their response.  

We heard reporters, friends, clients, and family call it “The Great Pause.” That description perfectly captures the moment for me.

Shifting from Preparing to Responding

The month of March feels like it happened a lifetime ago.

Back then, we were preparing for so many exciting events.

I was spending hours prepping one of our clients for SXSW, lining up video crews, building excitement for upcoming conferences, and of course, the high holiday of cannabis, 4/20. Then, everything changed.

I realized that how I handled communications for our clients could be a determining factor in whether they made it through the other side of the crisis.

That realization inspired me to share six key takeaways for cannabis industry leaders in early April.

Even before the pandemic, I had discussed with our clients the difference between public relations (earned media) and advertising (paid media)—many people believe they’re the same, which is not the case at all.

A lot of PR agencies focus on marketing messages, but in terms of media relations and traditional media, it’s not about marketing.

It’s about telling the story of how a company fits within a community’s ecosystem and what type of support it provides.

Of course, there’s now another layer for companies to navigate, ensuring their communications reflect the moment during turbulent times.

This has been especially true for cannabis, which was deemed essential in most states with legal medical or adult-use markets.

The industry’s essential status became an important and relevant story for our clients to share during the COVID-19 crisis—how they were responding to the pandemic by keeping employees and consumers safe, while at the same time ensuring access to a product that many people find essential for their health and quality of life.

That’s the type of information that the public is looking for from their news sources—not marketing messages or advertising hype. 

Cannabis Communications During COVID

As PR professionals, we’re well-positioned to shine a light on all the positive work our clients are doing during the pandemic.

The cannabis industry, in particular, has suffered from stigma in the past. Now the industry is poised to be a key player in the recovery, contributing jobs and tax revenue to gutted local economies.

Cannabis has always been community-focused, even as it grows into a more mature market.

And yes, cannabis is now corporate, with fully-developed Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives.

CSR-driven messaging became especially relevant as the pandemic unfolded, connecting the brands to the community and acknowledging the uncertainty and pain that many people felt.

This continued to be the case as we grappled with widespread social injustice revealed in plain sight.

Cannabis provides relief, both at the individual and community levels.

Though many events on our clients’ calendars were scrapped, others were re-imagined to safely support the community while also contributing to worthy causes.

While we helped them work through how that would look—and how to make it successful for them, it was important to plan our media outreach in a way that was relevant to the moment and contributed to the conversation.

We also didn’t want to capitalize on the global tragedy; rather shine a light on the positive efforts that businesses are doing to lift up their local communities and a way that we could come together safely.

Those events were absolutely a highlight of the past six months for me. 

When Setbacks Become Opportunities

My husband, Patrick, is a professional artist who creates incredible murals and billboards for companies across the United States.

The pandemic understandably put his work schedule on hold, with restaurants and other retail businesses closing down, boarding up and canceling planned murals he was scheduled to produce.

But as the local restaurants and bars boarded up and those blank plywood panels covered darkened windows, Patrick saw an opportunity to give back to his long-term business supporters.

He transformed the panels into colorful murals featuring dogs wearing masks, along with positive messages for the community.

He also partnered with a local print shop to sell prints of his artwork, with all proceeds going to support restaurant workers.

Of course, I got to work sharing his story with local media, including an entire special dedicated to the Denver artists and the pandemic art

Stories like Patrick’s—of people or businesses rising to the challenge, collaborating, and giving back—are happening all across the country.

As PR professionals, we’re uniquely positioned to identify and share those stories in a way that’s relevant and effective for both our clients and communities.  

Reflecting on the Past Six Months

It’s been such a heartbreaking year, between COVID-19 and the racial injustices that are coming to a head in our country.

It’s easy to simply want to give up and move to a deserted island.

But then I think about the good stories coming out of the cannabis industry that need to be told and my role in helping clients tell those stories.

We’re fighting the good fight, sharing information about how people can naturally find relief.

And on a larger scale, we’re charting a course forward, showing how cannabis can be an essential part of our nation’s recovery.

I truly feel I am able to make a difference for good.

That’s what continues to keep me leaping out of bed in the morning, looking for the positive news hooks that every day brings.