Communications experts share strategies for crafting an effective, professional crisis response

It didn’t take long for #PermitPatty to start trending on social media – or for Allison Ettel to lose control of her business.

On June 23, Ettel, then-CEO of a California company that sells CBD tinctures, was filmed threatening to call the police on an 8-year-old black girl for selling water on the street without a permit.

The sloppy aftermath – a shifting narrative, defensive apologies, botched media appearances, Ettel’s resignation from TreatWell Health and a sudden business rebrand – underscored the need for cannabis businesses to do strategic crisis communications planning … or risk losing everything.

While they didn’t comment on any specific case, communications experts who spoke with Marijuana Business Magazine emphasized the importance of crisis communications planning and shared strategies for crafting an effective, professional crisis response.

A crisis communications plan should include:

  • Identifying a crisis planning and response team.
  • A roundup of potential crises or vulnerabilities – be it a large-scale product recall, a run-in with law enforcement (think Denver-based Sweet Leaf) or an event that unleashes a public relations nightmare (such as Ettel’s case).
  • A checklist of questions to ask in a crisis – who, what, when, where, why and how?
  • A list of stakeholders, such as investors or employees.
  • A rundown of different communications channels and an internal communications plan.
  • Key messages for various audiences, including an initial placeholder statement while you gather facts and templates for follow-up statements.

“That, in a nutshell, is crisis planning,” said Kim Casey, the communications manager for Colorado’s vertically integrated marijuana chain Native Roots Dispensary. “Shooting from the hip, things are going to spiral out of control quickly. … By being able to say, ‘If this, then that’ well in advance, you give yourself a road map that allows you to make decisions quickly without the influence of the adrenaline of the moment.”

The key, Casey said, is to leverage communications best practices and apply them to the cannabis industry.

“There are so many crisis communications plans out there; so many industries and so many experts that have done this already,” Casey said. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”


Assemble a Team

Your crisis communications team can include C-level executives, board members, legal counsel and communications, marketing and social media specialists.

If your communications or marketing consultants or in-house teams aren’t experienced in crisis planning, hire and consult with a crisis communications expert.

“What you really want is a crisis communications expert,” said Mary Patrick, a 35-year veteran of strategic communications and the CEO of Jasculca Terman Strategic Communications in Chicago. “Someone who has managed major crises and who asks the right questions; someone who can help you move quickly and credibly; someone who is a good writer; someone who is an executive coach and isn’t afraid to say ‘no’ or ‘you can’t’ or ‘you shouldn’t.’ That kind of expertise is so important.”

Also, in advance of a crisis, designate a point person who’ll call the shots and choose your spokespeople.

“When you’re in a crisis, who speaks for your organization really says a lot about the level of the crisis,” Patrick said. “When do you choose your president and CEO or your attorney or your communications person?”

When you single out potential crises, also identify who’ll need to be included on the crisis response team, Patrick advised. For example, if a product tests positive for a pesticide, you’ll want cultivators at the table to share their expertise.


Identify Potential Problems

Whether it’s a product recall or a C-level executive’s sudden resignation, you need to identify potential crises and your company’s vulnerabilities.

Cannabis companies are prone to the same crises other businesses face, but they are uniquely vulnerable to frequent and disruptive new regulations and, of course, police stings or raids.

Identifying potential crises or vulnerabilities can be uncomfortable – especially because you have to acknowledge that a business leader may become a liability, as in the case of #PermitPatty.

“Part of every crisis plan we put together includes the chance or the possibility a key leader has done something wrong,” Patrick said. “It includes how you address it, who steps in or takes over and how you talk about it.”

Those kinds of vulnerabilities have to be discussed, said Amy Larson, the vice president of marketing at Denver’s Cohn Marketing and Cohnnabis, the agency’s cannabis marketing arm. Pinpointing C-level execs as potential liabilities is not fun, she said, and you should be sensitive in those conversations.

“But if you’re taking a real 360-degree view of what could befall your company and how you best prepare for it, that definitely has to be part of the conversation,” Larson said.


Assess the Crisis

It’s important to have tools in place to assess a crisis and ask the right questions.

Patrick suggests a checklist that includes basic questions – who, what, when, where, why and how – and more sophisticated queries directly related to your crisis communications plan.

The National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) has an incident-report template in its crisis communications manual that prompts employees to ask those kinds of questions and provide an incident report. Larson, who is on the marketing and advertising committee for the NCIA, said that kind of documentation is valuable because it can help you assess the scope of a crisis. It also answers questions you’re likely to be asked by media or consumers – the who, what, when, where, why and how.

It’s helpful to assess what the scope of the crisis will be. Among the questions you should ask: Is there a public health risk? How many people have been affected? Is the crisis ongoing?

Perhaps most important is having the tools to help others assess what is and isn’t a crisis, and at what level. That will help measure your response.

Casey, the communications manager at Native Roots, created a diagram that helps employees understand what constitutes a crisis, and a phone tree so employees at cultivation facilities and retail locations know whom to contact if an issue arises.

“Helping (employees) understand that in advance and giving them the resources to evaluate that is part of putting a crisis communications plan in place,” Casey said. “They need to have the confidence to know that they can handle it, and we need to make sure that the appropriate people within the company are notified.”


Identify Stakeholders and Communication Channels

In crisis communications, communicating with your audiences is key. Your key stakeholders include:

  • C-level executives
  • Board of directors
  • Investors
  • Vendors
  • Consumers
  • Employees
  • Media contacts

Share the right message at the right time on the right channel, Casey said. You need to consider internal and external methods of communication. For example, an internal phone tree is helpful so your crisis-response team – or your employees – know whom to call and when.

If you’re targeting trade publications, social media might not be the most effective tool for communicating with the press; consider drafting a traditional news release or making a phone call.

Social media can, however, be an effective tool for communicating with consumers.

“If you are going out in the media and talking about a situation that will eventually get to your direct consumer, and you are not mentioning it on your social media channels, I think that is a mistake,” Casey said. “In the industry, we always want to craft the narrative. Social media allows you to go directly to your consumer.”

Communicate with your employees through crises, too, Casey said. It’s important they understand how a situation might affect them.

There are legal restrictions on what you can advise employees to do, but you can ask that they refer all media to someone in the organization who is equipped to answer their questions.

That means you also have to communicate to leadership that what’s said to employees might be shared outside the organization – but that doesn’t make transparency any less important.

“It’s not inconceivable – as a matter of fact, it should be expected – that that information may be passed along, and faster than you anticipate,” Casey said. “However, that does not remove the obligation to communicate with your staff.”

Larson echoed the importance of communicating with employees.

“If a company has a plan in place and guidelines in place and messaging down that has been shared with their employees, that puts them miles ahead,” Larson said.


Draft Key Messages

It’s a good idea to draft general statements in advance of a crisis. The statements will need to be modified to suit the nature of the crisis, but having them already crafted helps you get ahead of the story.

Larson shared a potential placeholder message from the NCIA crisis communications manual: “We are monitoring the situation and will be providing information shortly.” That can be used before modifying additional, predrafted statements, the manual says.

Your message should be sincere – not defensive or defiant – fact-based, apologetic when necessary and forward-looking – meaning it states what you’re going to do to make sure there’s not a repeat crisis.

Your messaging also should focus on the questions you’re being asked – not the questions you think you’re being asked, Larson said. And, you should draft questions you hope you aren’t asked, knowing you likely will be, she advised. Such questions can relate to sustainability, energy and water use, pesticides, product recalls or inventory that’s missing or incorrectly tracked.

“At least taking the step to think through possible scenarios, ask the difficult questions and formulate answers as part of their crisis preparation can help to better manage and maintain their messaging and reputation during a stressful situation,” Larson said.

As part of your messaging, it’s also important to have up-to-date company information on hand – your vision and values, number of employees, brief bios for company leaders and spokespeople, safety plans and building blueprints, and policies and procedures.

“It’s important that this is not a plan that sits on a shelf,” Patrick said. “Facts change. To have a plan that really helps you, it needs to be a discipline to keep it updated.”

“When you’re in the thick of it, right in the eye of the storm, you have to make a lot of decisions quickly in order to get your story told and to keep ahead of the flow of information,” Patrick said. “You have a much better chance of being successful in crisis communications management if you share your story before others start sharing it or judging it.”

Joey Peña


Five Tips for Managing Media in a Crisis

Gaynell Rogers, the co-founder of Treehouse Global Ventures, an investment fund in Sacramento, California, founded by women for women in cannabis, and the head of media relations for Harborside, a vertically integrated marijuana company in Oakland and San Jose, California, shared tips for managing media in a crisis.

  1. Planning and timing: Be prepared. Your crisis communications plan – including potential crises and all the “what-ifs” – should be in place before you respond. Your response team should include the company’s founders as well as marketing, communications, social media and IT specialists. If a plan is in place, you should respond within two hours of a crisis, Rogers said. “One of the things I’ve noticed in the past decade is a shoot-from-the hip attitude, deal with it when it happens,” said Rogers, who has been a marketing and media consultant for more than 30 years. “Wrong. You have to plan ahead, practice and be prepared.”
  2. Messaging: Don’t wait to consult with a public relations specialist experienced in crisis communications. Their expertise is needed in the planning process, and it’s often too late to hire such a person when a crisis strikes. Also, leave emotion out of your message. “When your work is meaningful and rewarding, it’s hard not to be emotional,” Rogers said. However, “Emotion can cloud your messaging.” And, in a major crisis, skip the spokesperson: “People don’t want to see a spokesperson,” Rogers said. “They want to see a founder or company owner engaged in a crisis response.” Also, the message should be concise and transparent.
  3. Social media: Your social media specialist should be prepared immediately to manage all your accounts during a crisis. It’s helpful to share screenshots to provide context for the crisis you’re addressing and show proof, Rogers said. For example, if you’re forced to issue a product recall, share a screenshot of test results or a graphic with affected batch numbers and products as well as a visual for what you’re doing to fix the problem. Always provide a solution.
  4. Video: Video messages are more effective than print statements, but they can require media training for the speaker. Speakers should look at the camera, be completely engaged in the message and speak in an even, strong tone. A good example, Rogers said, is Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson’s sincere video apology and follow-up on racial bias training after two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks last spring.
  5. Company education: Prioritize communications with your staff and your internal audience, Rogers said. Internal communications during a crisis can foster loyalty and engagement. A crisis can touch varied components of your operation, so it’s important you communicate with your employees and engage them during crisis response.

– Joey Peña


Social Media: Friend or Foe in a Crisis?

In a crisis, it’s critical to quickly and thoughtfully implement your social media strategy. It’s also important to know how social media fits in your larger crisis communications response.

“You have to look at social media as one of the tools in your toolkit,” said Kim Casey, communications manager for Colorado’s Native Roots Dispensary.

In a crisis, Casey and communications experts Amy Larson and Mary Patrick advised:

  • Immediately start monitoring your social media channels, such as Twitter and Facebook. You can use media-monitoring tools like TrendKite, Critical Mention and Meltwater to identify trends in online stories and comments.
  • Don’t go silent, don’t turn off commenting functions or delete comments and don’t delete your accounts. Turning off or deleting comments becomes a story of its own and risks becoming its own indictment of the company. And, if you ignore social media, you lose the opportunity to craft your own narrative.
  • Do not respond to every negative comment. Instead, consider analytics before responding; strategic silence is also an option.

On the last point, quickly look at analytics before you make the strategic decision to engage a user, said Patrick, CEO of Chicago-based Jasculca Terman Strategic Communications. If someone who shares a negative post has only 20 followers, is it worth elevating their comment by responding?

“Sometimes strategic silence is a better approach because you don’t want to give wind to someone’s sails,” Patrick said.

With social media, there may be an impulse to respond immediately, but that might not be in your best interest.

“Social media allows you speed – but is that a good thing or a bad thing?” Casey queried.

Digital experts at Jasculca Terman pointed to Starbucks as an example of a company that smartly leveraged its social media after two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia store in April. The company used Twitter to issue its initial apology and take responsibility for the arrest, saying, “The basis for the call to the police” that led to the men’s arrest was “wrong.”

Starbucks also used Twitter to announce a financial settlement with the men, an agreement to pay for the men to complete their undergraduate degrees through Starbucks’ College Achievement Plan, continued dialogue on inclusion and equity, and its plan to provide a day of race-bias education for all store employees.

On the flip side, United Airlines did little to quell public anger over video of a passenger being dragged off one of its airlines in 2017. In statements on social media, the airline refused to comment on the situation, instead apologizing for overbooking the flight, which led to the man being forcibly removed from the plane. In his first statement, Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines, apologized for having to re-accommodate customers – making only a brief mention of the man who was dragged off the plane.

When weighing your social media response, avoid knee-jerk reactions, said Larson, vice president of marketing at Denver’s Cohn Marketing. You may say something you don’t mean to say or something that causes legal liability later. Or, “you may say something that’s going to haunt you forever,” Larson said. “It’s going to live online, and you’re going to become a meme.”

 – Joey Peña


The Art of Apologizing

When a crisis warrants an apology, communications experts say you should:

  • Take responsibility. Do not be defensive or use aggressive or defiant tones.
  • Be authentic and demonstrate compassion if someone was hurt or wronged by the company’s actions.
  • Provide any context or perspective you can share, but keep in mind legal restrictions regarding comments on personnel matters.
  • Say what you learned and how you plan to prevent similar incidents.
  • Commit to taking achievable action. Say how you’ll right the wrong. Follow-up action may require employee training, additional oversight of operations or removing a leader from a post.

It’s important to commit to action so people can see you take the matter seriously, said Mary Patrick, the CEO of Chicago’s Jasculca Terman Strategic Communications.

That said, immediately pledging sweeping changes or a large donation may seem disingenuous.

So, in your initial statement, say you’re reviewing what actions you need to take. Then, be thoughtful about how and when you act, advised Patrick, a 35-year veteran of strategic communications.

“People want to know that you’ve done something about the issue and that they can trust you again,” she said.

Joey Peña


The ‘Gold Standard’ in Crisis Communications

In 1982, Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol painkiller was the target of drug tampering, and seven people died after consuming cyanide-laced capsules. The drugmaker’s actions in the days and months that followed are often considered the gold standard in crisis response, according to communications experts.

“It demonstrates how an entity does (crisis response) very well,” said Mary Patrick, the CEO of Jasculca Terman Strategic Communications in Chicago.

What did Johnson & Johnson do right?

  • It immediately formed a crisis-response team to assess the public threat and determine how to salvage the brand.
  • It immediately informed the public to stop consuming Tylenol and had its product pulled from every shelf in the United States.
  • It provided frequent updates and created telephone lines for consumers to call with questions and where the news media could receive updates.
  • James Burke, Johnson & Johnson’s CEO, issued public statements that kept consumers informed and introduced Tylenol’s pioneering tamper-resistant packaging.

In other words, the company moved quickly and with transparency, accepted the fact its product had been compromised, prioritized public safety, provided frequent updates and channels of communication, then implemented a solution.

The Tylenol case “informs us as communications professionals to take those pieces and utilize them in preparation for a response,” said Kim Casey, communications manager for Native Roots Dispensary, a vertically integrated marijuana chain in Colorado.

Joey Peña