Telling Stories of Sin

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There’s a category of products called “sin” products — things like beverage alcohol, casinos and now, in many states, recreational cannabis. (OK, admit it — you had no idea where that headline was going, did you?)

While these products are legal, developing a communications plan — either proactive or reactive — requires a heightened focus on many critical issues. As an example, when a serious car accident occurs, there is virtually no credible call for a complete ban of automobiles. By contrast, when a similar accident happens and one of the drivers is found to be intoxicated, there are often loud and credible cries for increased regulation of beverage alcohol not only as it relates to driving, but also addressing how the product may be consumed or sold overall.

In some cases, opponents to the products themselves engage (or become) elected officials who enact legislation which changes the sale and consumption of these products. Such laws are more often than not solutions looking for problems. For example, it is illegal in most states to offer a coupon for the purchase of beer. Those who put such legislation forward often do so in the name of making it less financially attractive to over consume. However, if cost could curtail abuse, it would be fair to assert that the U.S. would not be facing the opioid and heroin crisis it is today.

Entrepreneurs and companies working in recreational cannabis are quickly finding, like other sin industries, there can be a completely different set of rules.

Here are a number of issues that are far more sensitive to the sin products category than nearly all others:

  • You will most certainly be faced with a group that would like to see your product or company cease to exist, and they are often large, loud and politically well connected. As a result, any mistake you make will be magnified, and you will most likely be blamed for problems completely out of your control.
  • You will likely get pressure from organizations that are very difficult to argue with and not look like a bully. Who can argue with an organization called Mothers Against Drunk Driving? No one is in favor of impaired driving, but groups like that often work toward ideas that do more than curtail impaired driving by working toward changes in the way alcohol is marketed, purchased and consumed in general.
  • You will most certainly face regulatory challenges most other industries do not. Understand that these will not always be large initiatives. Small items like zoning and signage requirements, restrictions on hours of operation and similar items can be both limiting and costly.
  • You will most likely be targeted for “sting” operations. No clothing store gets secret shoppers from a local, state or federal government looking for mistakes, but if you’re a bar, casino or marijuana dispensary, it will likely happen several times a year. One slip-up by one employee and you can face force business interruption, fines, lawsuits and more.
  • You can also be held responsible if someone misuses your product long after they left your place of business. Again, a car crash typically doesn’t result in a lawsuit against the car dealer (assuming there is no defect or similar issue), but an irresponsible patron from a liquor store who ends up in an accident often results in a lawsuit naming the patron, the liquor store, the liquor distributor and product manufacturers.

How should sin companies prepare a communication plan? A few ground rules:

  • Have a thick skin. You’re going to be targeted and criticized, often unfairly. If you can’t handle that and respond calmly and professionally, you’re in the wrong business.
  • Be proactive. More than any other industry, sin companies must constantly share positive news about themselves. If the first time you hear of a company is when they have a problem, it creates an potentially undeserved image. By contrast, if your customers recognize you as a positive member of the community, it’s easier to recover from a negative incident.
  • When they go low, you go high. A perfect line to steal from the former first lady. Being rude, overly defensive or emotional simply throws gas on a fire. Calm, thoughtful and sincere will win the day.
  • Build allies before you need them. Don’t wait until you need a newspaper reporter to help you point out an unfair attack. Make sure you know the reporters, legislators and regulators before you need to ask for help. (See our post on PR and GR here.)
  • Be prepared to speak on the positive aspects of your business at all times. How many people do you employ? How much did you give to charity last year? How much do you pay in local, state and federal taxes? Be ready to speak about the good you do, with current figures, at all times. At Coors, we were proactive about this and released economic impact statements on a regular basis.
  • It’s OK to apologize. Too many companies don’t want to say a simple “we’re sorry.” If you’re in the sin industry, get over that — immediately. If one of your employees served an underage patron, for example, you screwed up. Say you’re sorry, and give concrete examples of what you’re doing to make sure that doesn’t happen again,.
  • Be human. It’s easy to verbally abuse a company, but it’s much harder to abuse a specific employee or owner. Put your face on things, and don’t hide that face when the going gets tough. It will help you move forward.

In the end, remember that you’re in a legal industry, providing jobs and offering a product or service that when used responsibly, is a welcome benefit to your customers. That said, you’re under far more scrutiny that most industries, and you need to plan.

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