The recent outbreak of COVID-19 has upended everyday life across the world. In the United States, restrictions on travel and business have disrupted consumer habits, supply chains and office operations spanning every industry imaginable. Without a clear end in sight, I believe companies must begin treating these restrictions as the new normal and plan their communications strategies accordingly.
While cannabis retailers have experienced a recent uptick in business as customers and patients stock up on products, it’s important to develop an ironclad communications plan to address every possible scenario in these evolving circumstances. Based on what I’ve witnessed among my clients and other industry players, cannabis businesses spanning all services should enact consistent communications strategies for consumers, employees, regulators, key stakeholders and the media to protect the collective safety of their communities and ensure their longevity.
Considering how many communications channels may need to be established during this outbreak, first, create a communications hub and identify critical contact people to spearhead each working group. Give group leaders the power to review and approve statements, and be in constant contact with executives. Ensure that staff working within each group have scripts, updated contact lists and a frequently asked questions document to answer internal and external inquiries consistently and accurately.
Safety As A Priority
The issue on most people’s minds during an evolving pandemic is safety. Employees need to be assured that their health isn’t likely to be impacted if they come into work. Customers want to know that their shopping environment is safe. And health officials need to be made aware of how a company is complying with public health regulations.
Ensure that each working group structures its messaging strategies around the assurance of safety. This means that groups overseeing internal employees should work with internal legal and HR teams to develop and communicate updated policies regarding office health, sick leave, telecommuting or staggering work shifts and developing an emergency disease outbreak plan should an employee test positive for the virus. Additionally, it’s important for company executives to develop a cascaded communications approach to disseminate crucial information to managers and employees and establish two-way communications and confidential reporting for employees.
Instruct consumer-facing groups to communicate health and cleaning protocols, store capacity limits and any updates regarding cannabis delivery or curbside pickup. In this climate, customers are usually less willing to visit stores that they perceive as potential health risks. Ensure that your company demonstrates that it takes the well-being of your customers seriously, especially if you serve medical patients, and dedicate a section of your company’s website to coronavirus updates. Also, make sure that your consumer group has an emergency outbreak plan if a retail employee or customer tests positive or if the store shuts down for cleaning or regulatory reasons.
Your regulatory affairs group plays a critical role in liaising with state and federal health officials to keep the company updated on rapidly evolving safety protocols. This team is responsible for communicating timely and accurate information to the company that can guide responses in each operational location. The group should also inform officials about measures the company is taking to stay compliant. Since the intensity of an outbreak may differ by location, ensure that your regulatory group, especially if you’re a multistate operator, is aware of guidance specific to particular communities.
Cannabis As An Essential Business
The cannabis industry has been fairly shielded from the consequences of the larger market downturn due to its status as an essential business in many states. However, this status is not guaranteed, so it’s important for companies to prepare responses that address the regulatory agendas of local governments to continue operating.
This scenario briefly played out in San Francisco and Denver, where city officials initially deemed cannabis businesses as nonessential but quickly backtracked on their positions after pushback from industry figures and consumers. If your company operates in states that have yet to issue shelter-in-place orders, be prepared to issue statements that speak to cannabis’ medical applications and lobby your leaders for this essential status. Incorporating third-party support from patients or doctors and referencing scientific studies may lend credibility.
Your media-facing group can reiterate the social and medical benefits of cannabis to a wider audience. It is their job to show the public how the industry is providing local assistance during this ongoing crisis. Some cannabis businesses have begun producing hand sanitizer and donating it to healthcare workers, for instance. Make sure that your media team informs reporters of the industry’s philanthropic contributions to help fight the spread of the coronavirus. These actions not only benefit healthcare workers, but they also reinforce the industry’s values of supporting the well-being of local communities.
Keeping Stakeholders In The Loop
It’s also important to maintain communications with investors and suppliers that may be concerned about the financial health of the company. Ensure that your supplier-facing groups are in contact with supply chains to anticipate possible inventory shortages or retail challenges. Suppliers and retailers already operate on thin margins, so make sure you’re proactively finding solutions to protect each other’s bottom lines.
It’s important for investor-facing groups to identify essential business functions, including critical jobs and supply chain services, that are required to maintain operations with minimal disruption. This is especially relevant for ancillary cannabis businesses that may not be fully benefiting from the retail-side boom. Ensure that your spokespeople notify investors of other potential operational disruptions, your emergency outbreak plans and your road map to recovery after the pandemic subsides. It’s vital for these teams to portray the company’s leadership as prepared and forward-thinking.
This pandemic presents an extraordinary social and economic challenge, but I believe that the industry can successfully navigate this situation with a streamlined communications strategy. Before issuing statements, ask yourself whether your messaging accurately reflects your culture and how you’re impacting customers, employee morale and the general community. The cannabis industry has proven its resilience over time, and I believe it will overcome these circumstances with the same tenacity and dedication to community well-being that it has demonstrated in the past.