“Thought leader” is a phrase I hear thrown around pretty often these days. I see it in Twitter bios, read it in marketing emails, and hear it at conferences. It seems like everyone considers themselves to be a thought leader in some way, but how does someone reach such a vaunted status?
For better or worse, a big part of my job working in PR is to establish clients as thought leaders. This is a tricky proposition in a frontier-like market that is evolving on a daily basis and crowded with companies and individuals jockeying for position. There is quite a bit of noise coming out of the space, with certain individuals throwing out wild claims that have the potential to set the entire market back.
So how can you actually go about establishing yourself as a cannabis-industry expert in a responsible way?
1. Carve out your lane — and stay in it.
It’s no secret that the cannabis industry is nuanced and complicated, so having a specific, confined area of expertise within the space is expected. If you’re an expert in one component of the industry, own that space! This is your comfort zone, and even though you may be able to discuss other topics that you’re less well-versed in, be sure not to stray too far from your respective area . You don’t want to put yourself at risk of saying something that might set back not only your company but the entire industry as well.
In a space quickly emerging with knowledgeable industry figures, it helps to carve out your specific lane and stay in it to earn credibility and respect as a cannabis-industry thought leader. Build your expertise in one area and become the main, go-to leader of that vertical.
2. Draw on your own experience without being too constrained by it.
Your experience makes your opinion valuable, but it’s not the only part of the equation. Being able to lend value to a larger conversation doesn’t end with only your own perspective. Sure, you can draw on your own experience, but do so with a certain level of discretion. Just because your company encountered a specific situation does not necessarily mean that all companies will be able to identify with that same experience.
This hedge is a small but important nuance, especially in an industry as young as cannabis. Many entrepreneurs and companies will be following in your footsteps. If you want to be the trusted source that people return to, it’s important to determine what you can offer to others based on both your personal experience and a more open-minded knowledge of the industry and its players.
3. Keep it real.
Hyperbole may drive headlines, but this can come back to bite you if you aren’t careful. Being a thought leader in the cannabis space doesn’t necessarily mean that your expertise needs to be totally expansive — and you shouldn’t fake it if it isn’t. While your initial goal might be to garner as much visibility as possible, you should always stay honest and upfront with your grasp on the subject matter. We’ve all seen those CBD companies that claim their product cures every ailment under the sun. Don’t be that person.
When establishing their expertise in the space, a former cannabis client of mine would tend to end every single statement describing his product with the words “and more.” Naturally, reporters would ask, “…okay, so what else?” to which the client would then have no response. This is a foolproof way to torpedo your credibility, as it indicates a dishonest attempt at sounding more knowledgeable than you might actually be. While it’s totally acceptable to be stronger in some areas than others, don’t feel pressured to put yourself in a position where someone might easily be able to call your bluff.
4. Don’t call yourself a thought leader.
Aim to provide value to the cannabis industry without referring to yourself as a thought leader, or else you risk rubbing other industry leaders the wrong way. Be as knowledgeable as possible, leaving any pompous attitudes or lofty titles behind. By simply providing valuable opinions and perspective drawn from your experience in the industry, you will naturally become regarded as a thought leader without having to call yourself one.
Many of these guidelines boil down to a few simple themes: Be responsible, be honest, and remember that your reputation isn’t the only one you’re responsible for — it’s the reputation of the entire cannabis industry. With that approach, we can all collectively earn the trust of the public and make good on the promises that cannabis legalization offers.