Berkeley Patients Group (BPG) is the nation’s oldest, continuously operating dispensary in the country, and was the first dispensary in the Bay Area to win a temporary retail permit from the California Bureau of Cannabis Control. With the passage of California Proposition 64 in November of 2016, and with over a year of regulatory wrangling, finally, January 1, 2018 was fast approaching and with it the first recreational sales of cannabis in California. This momentous date presented BPG a tremendous opportunity to introduce the dispensary and brand to California’s adult-use marketplace. The plan was deceptively simple: open at 6:00 a.m. on New Year’s Day, make a major splash, and let the world know about it. Easier said than done.
Established in 1999, Berkeley Patients Group has a proud lineage that combines business savvy with bold activism and this proud history guided and guides all the decisions made today. The message about opening the doors for rec use was not simply “hey, we’re here, come on by.” There had to be something said to honor this tradition, to mark the date in a meaningful way. A specific message had to be communicated. Moreover, BPG had hired PR agencies before and found they kept spending and spending but without results. So, as the team considered a PR agency, they knew they needed to communicate a specific message and they also knew they must avoid getting conned by some hack agency.
Higher Ground was known to BPG because agency co-founders Robert O’Shaughnessy and Carol Ruiz had worked with BPG’s Marketing Director to host a series of marketing mixers in 2016 and 2017, so it was a natural ask when shopping for a PR firm. And it was also a bold choice. Other companies were spending big money on splashy billboards so making January 1st into a milestone event and inviting the media to cover it was a different, and brave approach.
January 1, 2018 was destined to be a momentous day in California. With characteristic chutzpah, BPG leadership set an ambitious goal: attain up to ten published articles from five or six local sources and three to four national outlets. This was not only a media campaign with specific messaging points to communicate but an overarching brand promise to convey. And to do so, with a few weeks to spare, poker-faced BPG revealed an ace in the hole.
Berkeley Mayor and longtime BPG champion Jesse Arreguin agreed to inaugurate the new post prop 64 era. Every successful PR campaign tells a story and the ingredients were coming together. Longtime pioneer opens doors, with champion and advocate Honorable Jesse Arreguin cutting the ribbon when doors open. The team had 30 days to tell the story, with holiday break looming. The PR team rapidly developed talking points for key BPG leadership, conducted thorough research and developed a robust media list with cannabis and business reporters and began following them on Twitter to track their stories. Talking points were drafted. Key messages internalized. Media wish lists finalized. With esteemed competitors also announcing plans for an early grand opening, every second and every word counted and regular – like daily – outreach was essential.
December 22, 2017. Word goes out about the opening, with mayor Arreguin cutting the ribbon. Twitter blows up. The first article appears. People are getting excited. Its palpable; you can really feel it. The press release drops and pre-pithing begins in earnest to secure interviews with key spokespeople to discuss the impact of legalization on Berkeley and the state of California and nationally. Each phase of media outreach had a different strategy to ensure the team was going after the right media at the right time. The first phone calls went to the Associated Press San Francisco office and the go-to cannabis reporter in the Bay Area at the San Francisco Chronicle, the esteemable David Downs.
One week out, the pre-pitch strategy turned to the event itself. An event advisory was drafted and sent to local print and broadcast media, trade publications and national reporters inviting them to attend and cover the historic event and ribbon cutting ceremony. Then, day of, crowds start showing up at 4 a.m. The line extends. The mayor is there ready to talk about this incredible moment: this great pioneer of cannabis activism is ready for day one. Smiles abound.
Immediately after first pitch was distributed, it was apparent that this campaign was going to be successful. Within hours, Higher Ground lined up a handful of pre-event interviews with media including NBC Bay Area, the Associated Press, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Weekly, Daily Californian, CBS Moneywatch, Marijuana Business Daily, CBS KNX 1070 Radio, and coverage that followed days before January 1st and on January 1st included but not limited to Cannabis Now, Forbes, Leafly, San Francisco Examiner, Huffington Post, High Times, Herb Magazine, Berkeley Daily Planet, East Bay Times and SFBay.
Additionally, many outlets like San Francisco Chronicle and Marijuana Business Daily ran more than one article which tripled the reach. Several Associated Press stories circulated (before, during and after January 1st) with quotes from a BPG spokesperson, which was picked up in dozens of print and online publications and national news organizations including San Jose Mercury News, NBC News, Santa Cruz Sentinel, Berkeleyside, Complex. UPI.com, Los Angeles Times, NPR Radio, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, TIME magazine, CNBC, FOX News, ABC News, CBS, and the Oregonian.
Local TV stations covered the momentous event and aired numerous segments including NBC Bay Area, ABC KOGO and FOX KTVU on January 1st and January 2nd. The grey lady herself showed up; the New York Times requested interviews and ran a story that included this groundbreaking client. In total, the PR efforts generated more than 50 articles (more than five times the high-end benchmark) including local, regional and national print, online and broadcast media. Total coverage generated an estimated – and walloping – 1.5 billion impressions.
Berkeley Patients Group reputation as a leader in the cannabis space is secured, and on a national scale. Higher Ground is honored and humbled to have played a part.