In a relatively new and crowded industry like cannabis, a robust government relations strategy is increasingly important to cut through the noise and establish yourself as a trusted retailer with government.
From start-up through to initial capitalization and established entrants, government engagement is an ongoing process as policies and key influencers change.
As multiple levels of government grapple with their newfound responsibilities and coordination, knowing who to talk to and how to talk to them is critical for your business.
This is particularly true for the issues that impact retailers, as we are nowhere near the final iteration of some of the market’s most exciting aspects, such as marketing, promotion, distribution, and the market entrance of ‘2.0 products’. While the legislation, regulations, and by-laws for retail cannabis will continue to evolve, the “wait and see” approach is the preferred tactic for most levels of government across Canada.
No matter what you are lobbying for, or the level of government you are lobbying, connecting stakeholder engagement and communications to government relations activities is critical.
When put together, these tactics equal a respectful yet forceful dialogue that will increase your company’s profile and influence decision-makers.
Three Aspects of any GR Plan
1. Government Relations
The first step of any robust government relations plan is the ability to build a relationship with government that positions your company as a trusted adviser.
As some municipalities retain the right to veto certain retailers or outright ban retail cannabis in their communities, the importance of sustained and ongoing government relations with key councillors and staff allows retailers to get the inside track on decisions. Presenting to council, meeting with staff, or hiring locally are all ways retailers can make an impact in the community. Due to resourcing, some municipalities may be less informed than their provincial or territorial counterparts and, as a result, education is often required to dispel many of the pre-legalization fears of increased crime and drug use.
Education is often required to dispel many of the pre-legalization fears of increased crime and drug use.
Enacting a proactive engagement and monitoring strategy with municipal governments is key to understanding where retail cannabis is permitted, where it is restricted and, most importantly, where attitudes are shifting.
Developing a strategy that provides a direct line to government, especially when issues arrive with individual applications, can provide clarity in an otherwise opaque system. While each provincial agency is substantially different, issues are rarely driven, influenced, and resolved within a single jurisdiction in Canada. Understanding how all provinces approach retail cannabis is beneficial for those interested and concerned about jurisdictional creep, influence, and policy development. Requesting meetings with key bureaucrats to position yourself as a trusted stakeholder, or meeting with political staff to understand the overall strategy is important to avoid surprises in provincial policy or the development of new licence classes.
While retail distribution was left entirely to the provinces, marketing and promotional restrictions in the Cannabis Regulations govern the activities of all cannabis businesses. Understanding the upcoming and open consultations is a window into the next steps being considered by government. As the cannabis industry continues to evolve, these consultation periods are a great opportunity to engage with the federal government to build a trusted corporate profile.
As with all government relations strategies, insight into future opportunities and risks are invaluable.
2. Stakeholder Engagement
Stakeholders—be they the public, local communities, or other third parties—increasingly have the power to influence the public policy debate around your business’ objectives.
Creating opportunities for dialogue between stakeholders and influential parties is key to progressing a mandate.
Forming industry associations where none occur or joining an established association like the Association of Canadian Cannabis Retailers (ACCRES) or Cannabis Council of Canada is critical to any government relations plan. This membership allows a third party to lobby on your behalf without ‘popping your head up’ on potentially contentious issues that will harm your established or newly formed relationships with government.
Coalitions or trade associations can effectively participate in government debates, demonstrate unity in a business sector, and navigate issues on behalf of the companies involved. These coalitions can highlight opportunities to leverage project champions and spokespeople, as well as identify potential obstacles and provide strategies on how to manage risk related to a project.
Retailers can also leverage community outreach activities in order to identify and activate champions who can influence the dialogue in the public and government spheres—like your local Chamber of Commerce or Business Improvement Association.
Requirements such as letters of support or a positive community consultation should be considered early by local retailers and an effort should be made to build out a government relations strategy that includes community engagement. Getting these parties onside early, or even holding an open house to preemptively address some of their concerns, goes a long way in securing support. At the very least, you can avoid community complaints, which can derail even the most sophisticated operation.
3. Strategic Communications
Strategic communications should be built into everything from your website to your briefing notes to government, and should specifically highlight alignment with government priorities and your commitment to responsible and compliant operations. The most successful brands enhance reputation by aligning business objectives with broader societal challenges and interests.
Strategic communication campaigns will protect you and your interests while you focus on the things that matter most—growing your business, increasing shareholder value, and building your brand. Organizations that clearly articulate their issue and implications, and present recommendations based on evidence, stand the best chance of success.
Sit down with your team to determine a proactive and integrated government relations strategy to help your business thrive in this new industry.
Nicole Brassard is a Senior Consultant with Global Public Affairs. She can be reached at (604) 630-1065 or firstname.lastname@example.org.