This month, we met with the President and Founder of NisonCo, Evan Nison. Evan is a PR expert who has been working in cannabis advocacy and harm reduction long before the inception of NisonCo. Here, he joins us to discuss NisonCo’s roots in lobbying, what the company looks like now, and how PR in the cannabis industry is unique.
Hello, Evan! Could you tell us your location, how you started a cannabis PR firm, and some background about how you got here?
Evan Nison: I grew up in East Brunswick, which is where I am at the moment, and went to Ithaca College, where I studied business — but I honestly tried to avoid class as much as possible and spent most of my time lobbying with Tori [NisonCo’s Director of Operations] and other people. That’s how I initially learned PR: through legislative campaigns, like in Albany for medical marijuana.
I learned PR through working on advocacy efforts. At the time, it was just medical marijuana and 911 Good Samaritan until 2010 with the Prop 19 campaign. I took off a semester of college and worked on the campaign. We were the first campaign to change the narrative to using terms like “control and tax” and “tax and regulate.” We did poll testing and message testing about cannabis for one of the first times. Basically, we went into the campaign saying, ‘the first goal is to pass [cannabis legalization], but it might not be possible. The second goal is to change the narrative around cannabis and legalization.’
[Prop 19 was] also the first campaign to put out what we call “nontraditional allies” — so mothers, cops, judges, and people like that — rather than cannabis consumers as the main proponents. We actually had a rule that unless you were a nontraditional ally, we wouldn’t put you in front of a camera — to help change the public’s narrative. It was pretty obvious through message-testing that you could say the same thing, but if it comes from a middle-aged mother versus a 20-year-old male, it was just landing entirely differently with the public. So we put a considerable amount of emphasis on that, and I feel like we succeeded in that goal with the campaign.
Ultimately, [Prop 19] did fail. While we didn’t achieve 50% of the votes, we did achieve changing the narrative, which was still a big win.
What was next for you when Prop 19 didn’t pass?
After graduation, I was initially hired to lobby for bills I was already supporting for free. Our first client called me and said, ‘Hey, we see that you’ve been lobbying for this — what can we do to support it?’ I initially told them to hire a lobbyist, then turned around and said, ‘Actually, hire me because I know how to do this.’ So they hired me to lobby for it. So technically, our first few contracts were lobbying contracts in New Jersey for bills I had been working on pro bono anyway. Then, when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed that [bill we were lobbying for], the client kept us on for public relations services because I was getting them a lot of press from reporters I knew from lobbying.
We crushed it for them for PR, and they referred us to a few clients, those clients referred us to a few clients, and we became a PR firm that way. And then, we added SEO after that. So that’s the history of NisonCo.
What does a typical day look like in the life of Evan Nison?
Evan: It’s totally dependent. When I’m working in the company, generally, it’s supporting the SEO team or the BizDev team or replying to admin stuff — things that need to happen that people are waiting on me for.
My focus is on expansion efforts when I’m working on the company. For example, we’re currently talking about policy councils where we will try to do more policy-focused work and create little mini-associations focused on specific goals. So my day-to-day tasks depend on how long my to-do list is.
What’s your favorite thing about your job at a cannabis SEO agency?
Evan: Definitely that when I get bored, I can just do a different thing. I feel that’s usually a good sign for me — like when I get bored, I should be doing something else. That’s my favorite thing: I can craft my role. I realize I’m very lucky that this is a ridiculous and rare thing I can enjoy.
I’m curious about your communication style and how that differs between teams internally and clients.
Evan: My management style is pretty laissez-faire, where if you bring the right people to the table and create the right process and structure, then generally, the right things happen. And I feel like my communication style is kind of like that too.
I try to respond to everything as quickly as possible, and I always have to pick what’s time-sensitive and most important. So my communication style is all over the map, quite frankly. During the day, it’s one way because I have to respond to people, but then at night, when my mind can sort of like see the bigger picture, it’s different. But generally, I go with the flow.
I usually try to keep things to text communication just because I can communicate with more people that way, but if it’s complicated, then just getting on the phone and getting it done is definitely good. And I also will loop a lot of people in on calls.
How do you usually get new leads and new clients?
Evan: There’s been an evolution. Initially, the first three years or so were all word of mouth, as I mentioned. Clients would refer us to a few clients, and they would refer us to a few clients.
Then we started doing outreach, which is when the research team was born. The research team, I think, was initially responsible for just BizDev leads, or what we call qualified leads: Anyone who had paid for promotion in the cannabis industry, whether it was exhibiting at a conference or an ad in a magazine. The mentality was that we wanted to create a database of everyone in the cannabis industry who pays for promotions because we figured if they pay for publicity, then they might be interested in PR and SEO. So that was the concept behind the research team. It worked really well. And that was how we initially got all of our leads other than word of mouth.
Currently, our primary lead sources are word-of-mouth and inbound through our website — SEO and things like that. And then we’re working on doing a lot more outbounds again.
My goal for the end of 2022 is for everything that’s previously worked for us to all work cohesively together. It’s always worked because we have two or three different sources, but we’ve never had all five or six sources firing at once. That’s one of the things on my mind.
How does your job at a cannabis public relations firm differ from a similar position at a PR firm outside of the cannabis industry?
Evan: First off, I’m different because I don’t view myself as just a PR person. So I think that’s probably the biggest [difference] between most people who run PR agencies and me. Everything works together, so I also started some smoke and vape shops with a friend — we carry many NisonCo client products, and those companies help each other in many ways. More accurately, I think my role is building a network of companies in which NisonCo is the main star. So that’s how I think about myself as a person, of my role.
Just wearing my PR hat, if I was comparing us to other agencies, we’ve specifically tried to avoid dogma and the negative things that have happened in the PR world. So as a straight-up rule, I didn’t hire anyone with actual technical PR experience for the first five or six years until we had a solid process in place that we built just on the metrics we had. So we made our own system and process that worked and kept clients happy, and then we started bringing PR people in. I still think the more creative and agile we can be [the better] — not just copying other agencies.
Thank you so much for joining us, Evan!
We couldn’t do what we do here at NisonCo without Evan’s hard work, coordination, and leadership. If you’d like to read some of Evan’s work, check out his Forbes Agency Council profile here and Rolling Stone Culture Council profile here. Connect with Evan on LinkedIn here.
Keep an eye out for the next installment of our employee Q&A series. Next month, we’ll talk with one of our PR account managers, Michelle Melton.
Looking for help from our experienced psychedelics, cannabis, CBD and crypto/blockchain PR, SEO and marketing team? Let us know if you need help researching trends and topics, crafting communications, or securing news spots by contacting NisonCo here.