I had the pleasure of interviewing Kim Casey, who was the head of communications for Native Roots Dispensary, one of the largest cannabis companies in North America, operating 20 retail locations across Colorado and the first US-based cannabis company awarded a license to open retail dispensaries in Canada. She was responsible for all internal and external communications efforts for the company facilitating employee communications, executive messaging, investor relations and press. Kim comes to the cannabis industry with more than 20 years in communications for a wide variety of businesses and industries, including work with Fortune 500 companies, the White House, nonprofits and a leading public affairs agency.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I had been specializing in building communications and public relations programs from the ground up for companies as a consultant, getting them started and handing them back to the company to maintain; most recently for Colorado State University Global. It was always exciting and new but I realized that I wanted to focus on a specific area and bring my years of expertise to bear.
Living in Colorado has offered a front row to cannabis as one of the fastest growing industries in recent history. For a communications and public relations executive there are few industries that offer the exciting challenges of this new and emerging business. Connecting with Native Roots provided me the opportunity to immediately establish myself at the top of the industry and set a standard of communications best practices that could make a dramatic difference so quickly.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
This is marijuana so interesting stories happen daily and sometimes within the hour when you deal with communications, messaging and especially press. With that said, recently we experienced a break in at one of our stores in the middle of the night where the thieves stole a car and drove it through the outer and inner wall of the store; attempting to steal marijuana product. They were unable to gain any cannabis products because all marijuana is removed from displays and stored in locked cabinets or bank-level secure vaults at night.
The interesting part of this experience from a public relations perspective was the ability to change a narrative in the media. The initial TV station reporting on the incident had quotes from witnesses claiming the thieves managed to garner cannabis product, while in reality they did not and my early morning statement explaining that only “non-medicated product” was stolen was not exciting enough to remove the quote from the coverage. However, interest in the story persisted and with a fast, informal news conference later that morning and a messaging change to “thieves left with only T-Shirts and Oregano display samples since all marijuana was secured,” the narrative of the story changed completely. The story grew legs gaining coverage internationally in multiple languages and with viral social media comments.
The coverage in both traditional press and social platforms took on the narrative of foolish thieves versus a professional and responsible company. Social media comments like “well-seasoned thieves” and “oregano — must have been Italian mafia,” were the perfect counterpoint to turn a potentially negative story into a positive one for the company.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Mistakes only seem funny in hindsight but can make you feel disheartened at the time. Even though I had been in communications for many years, when I started out at Native Roots in a new industry, there were many new terms used for cannabis, most that would be considered slang. I was pitching a reporter with much greater knowledge of the industry than my own who used terms I didn’t know. I had to “fake” my way through much of the conversation, clearly clueless about what she was referring to and my lack of knowledge became quite obvious after a few minutes.
It is ok to not know all the answers but it is best to be honest and let the reporter know that you will get them the answers they need even if it means going back to your team or your client and asking for clarification. My initial embarrassment was less important than getting the reporter the information and in the end, I simply had to own up to the fact that I was new to the industry and needed her help to understand the questions she was asking so I could find the right person to get them answered.
How did you scale your business to profitability? How long did it take? Please share the steps you took.
As an in-house public relations executive, it is my job to raise the profile and awareness of the company with the media so that the press can recognize the expertise in the industry of the organization and its executives. The best way of doing this is to build a reputation with reporters so they know that they can get access and information for their articles from the right source in a timely fashion. Being aware of their deadline and demonstrating respect for their work in reporting the news is what builds the relationships and reputation.
In addition, make certain that company leadership respect the notion of what is news. Being able to advise executives about what is realistic for a reporter to cover is the best way to ensure that the company is included as a valuable resource.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
The cannabis business is in the news on a daily basis but right now the issues surrounding our expansion into Canada is the most compelling. Working on new lines of business such as the hemp-derived CBD store for Native Roots and our expansion into other locations brings a world of new stories and new outlets to our efforts.
Based on your personal experience, what advice would you give to young people considering a career in PR?
Understand that not every day is a win and not every article turns out the way you were hoping. Sometimes it is because you didn’t provide a compelling answer and sometimes it is because you didn’t share the right message point at the right time. It’s always easier to critique someone else who responds at the moment than yourself so cut yourself a break and learn from the experience. Hindsight is 20/20 and if you are honest with yourself you will continue to improve.
You are known as a master networker. Can you share some tips on great networking?
Talk to everyone. You never know who may be connected to whom or what will lead to a new interaction. But also put on your PR hat and make sure you focus on the positive, even in a negative situation.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
We read so much in the PR industry but the most important thing to read is the press both in the industries you are covering as well as others. You also should be reading news from perspectives that differ from your own. Being an informed person is the best advice I can give. Being a news junkie is a prerequisite for being in PR.
Because of the role you play, you are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would like to see civility return to our interactions and civil discourse. While we have moved beyond the old adage that neither politics nor religion should be discussed in polite conversation, it is not the subject matter but the lack of respect for each other that seems to be creating a downward spiral. Each person should be able to express their opinions without being dismissive or derogatory to those with differing opinions. With a focus on facts and at least an attempt at an open mind, we can bring back civility.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
You Need a Thick Skin — Beyond the fact that PR folks probably get as many rejections as actors auditioning, your reporter audience is not always thrilled to work with you. Once early in my career, I was called a PR wh%$# by a reporter for simply pitching a story suggestion to a reporter. Don’t take any of it to heart. You are doing your job and working for your client.
Persistence is Key — Once again rejection is part of the job. Even though you are certain the story you are pitching is newsworthy, it might not be the right reporter or outlet or time. Readjust and reevaluate your pitch and try again.
Read, Watch, Read — You are the expert and clients should be turning to you for your counsel. You have to know the media and the best way to learn is to be a consumer of all types of press, influencer thoughts and social media.
Watch the Other Side — As you track placements for your clients and companies you know you need to keep an eye on the competitors but sometimes we tend to stick to watching the perspectives that align with our own. Make certain you are watching outlets that disagree, especially in issues management.
Be Your Own Promoter — As we evolve in this industry we tend to focus on recognition for our clients’ achievements and forget about our own. It is often part of our nature to forget to highlight just how integral we as professionals are to the successes we bring about and we expect that our clients and bosses will simply see that in the work we do. Remember to be your own PR professional.