19 MILLION ‘LOOKS’

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FAMU’s medical marijuana initiative used a multicultural, Black-owned and operated ad agency to showcase the power of Black-owned media to reach and influence Florida’s people of color.

Florida A&M University’s Medical Marijuana Education and Research Initiative developed online “videocasts’ to educate Floridians about medical marijuana and the dangers of illegal cannabis.
COURTESY OF MMERI

BY THE FLORIDA COURIER STAFF

TALLAHASSEE – A 10-week radio, newspaper, and online campaign using primarily small, Black-owned and operated Florida media outlets garnered an estimated 19,200,000 impressions within African American, Caribbean, Haitian and Hispanic populations, according to the Black ad agency that created the effort.

An “impression’ is a standard media measurement. It’s when a person is exposed to an advertisement one time.

Nineteen million impressions is akin to reaching the combined population of the state’s Black and Hispanic communities – more than 9.3 million people – two times with an ad.

Good start for MMERI

CHARLES W. CHERRY II

The media campaign was waged on behalf of Florida A&M University’s Medical Marijuana Education and Research Initiative (MMERI), established in 2017 at Florida’s largest historically Black college or university.

MMERI’s focus is on educating the state’s diverse minority communities about medical marijuana and the consequences of illegal use of marijuana. Its funding is provided by the Florida Department of Health at the direction of the Florida Legislature.

Daytona Beach-based 623 Management, owned and operated by former Florida Courier Publisher Charles W. Cherry II, identified Black-owned and operated media outlets throughout the state as the best way for MMERI to initiate education and outreach to Florida’s communities of color.

According to Cherry, 623 Management made “a five-figure investment” to get reliable qualitative and quantitative research to determine how effective Blackowned media can be. For outlets that were not measured, the company used a combination of paid research, publicly available population and demographic estimates and maps to come up with rational estimates.

Unfavorable opinions

“We know that a strong stigma remains across all ethnicities with regard to marijuana, but especially in communities of color,” Cherry said in an exclusive interview with the Florida Courier.

“For decades, the sale and usage of marijuana has been criminalized and Black and Brown people have been disproportionately punished for using it and selling it.

“Therefore, in the minds of many, cannabis (the scientific name for marijuana) is strongly associated with incarceration, the drug culture, an unfair criminal justice system, economic deprivation, and now hypocrisy. Due to changes in some state laws, rich Whites are getting richer by selling the same product that Blacks and Hispanics continue to be imprisoned for even now.”

A tough job

Cherry thinks that it is difficult, but not impossible, to change the general mindset about marijuana and alleviate the confusion about legal versus illegal cannabis. He also believes that that medium matters as much as the message.

“The most credible mass media outlet in America has been, and remains, the Black Press,” he explains. “My team knew that we had to first leverage the power of the Black Press and Black-owned media outlets to begin a consistent, long-term effort to educate Floridians of color about the use of medical marijuana and the dangers of recreational, non-medicinal marijuana. Caribbean, Hispanic and Haitian media outlets also all have to be a part of MMERI’s outreach efforts.

“And you can’t change people’s minds on an issue like this by just using free public service announcements and print ads. People have to take some time to think about the new information they are learning. Printed information and long-form radio and TV programs are great for that, but you have to invest financial resources in the effort.”

Is it legal?

Cherry, a former South Florida state prosecutor, also believes confusion exists about medical marijuana as compared to recreational marijuana. In his opinion, that confusion comes from Floridians voting in 2016 to legalize medical marijuana.

“Too many folks in our community believe that ‘weed’ is now completely legal,” he said. They don’t know the difference between medicinal and non-medicinal cannabis.

“Some young folks believe if they get grandma’s marijuana ID card, it will get them out of jail if they get stopped by cops and subsequently arrested for possession. The law doesn’t work like that.”

How it really works

The benefits of medical marijuana are well-known. It provides relief from chronic pain, helps to alleviate nausea and vomiting, eases tremors from Parkinson’s disease and reduces the numbers of seizures suffered. It has been shown to be helpful with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), HIV/AIDS, among other diseases.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the main active ingredient in cannabis that produces
the  “high” sensation. Florida allows the use of medical marijuana and low-THC cannabis by qualified patients as certified by a qualified physician.

The qualifying conditions for medical marijuana use include cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma,
chronic pain, PTSD, and HIV/AIDS, among others. The state issues an identification card to people approved to purchase medical marijuana.

Still illegal

“Illegal marijuana” is marijuana that is used or obtained outside of Florida’s laws allowing purchase and use of medical marijuana. Marijuana that is not purchased from a licensed medical marijuana treatment center is illegal, as is marijuana that is used by individuals who are not qualified patients.

Possession of more than 20 grams of illegal marijuana is still a felony in the state of Florida. Possession of less than 20 grams is a first-degree misdemeanor.

Kickoff delayed, but strong

After a slow start and an unexpected tragedy – the sudden death of MMERI’s first executive director, Peter Harris – MMERI’s outreach efforts began in earnest in 2019.

The initiative held eight face-to-face forums in Tampa-St. Petersburg, Orlando, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tallahassee (2), Pensacola and Melbourne, reaching 595 attendees. In the 41 events MMERI participated in, more than 20,000 people had the opportunity to hear from MMERI about medical marijuana and the impact of the unlawful use of marijuana.

MMERI then launched its MMERI Forum Radio programs, which included interviews with
cannabis industry professionals, prosecutors, law-enforcement officers, defense attorneys, medical doctors, and other experts who provided factual information about cannabis.

The MMERI Facebook page launched in December 2019 and shared video of the MMERI Forum broadcasts.

Statewide network

In April 2020, MMERI produced original video interviews called MMERI Videocasts. In consultation with Cherry’s company, the Videocasts were converted to audio programs suitable for radio. Separate Videocasts were aired on two South Florida digital TV networks in the Haitian Creole language.

The radio network was expanded from three to 20 radio stations. The network list included AMs, FMs, and low-power stations across Hispanic talk and music, gospel, Caribbean, rhythm and blues, and Haitian talk and music radio formats. The 30-minute broadcasts were aired on various times on weekdays and weekends.

Paid newspaper ads were purchased and published among 13 newspapers and their affiliated websites and social media platforms: nine African American, two Hispanic, one Haitian.

By June 2020, MMERI content was heard or seen in the Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Fort Pierce, Orlando, Daytona Beach, Cocoa, Jacksonville, Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Tallahassee media areas. MMERI messaging also appeared simultaneously on the various media outlets’ affiliated websites and social media platforms.

‘Mission-driven’

“A constant complaint about Black-owned media is that its impact cannot be measured,” he said. “What people don’t know is that many times, Black media owners have to pay large sums of money to have their impact measured, and it’s just not worth it for a small business to do so.

“For instance, community based low-power FM radio stations are not measured at all. But just because you’re not measured doesn’t mean you don’t have impact or credibility.

“Historically, Black-owned media outlets are mission-driven, not money-obsessed. When it comes to community influence and credibility, they have always punched above their weights.”

623 Management also estimated that MMERI’s ad buy generated approximately nine private-sector full-time equivalents (FTEs) – jobs mostly with Blackowned businesses – over the six-month period the company worked with MMERI.

‘Impossible Missions Force’

Cherry credits a group of talented and knowledgeable individuals with giving MMERI a mass media jump-start.

“623 Management is built on the old ‘Mission: Impossible’ TV show model,” he affirmed.

“Once we develop a scope of work with a client, we pick the best team of outside professionals or companies that are best suited to get the work done. So our team will change from job to job, client to client.”

MMERI team

Cherry said the best team for MMERI was Lucius Gantt’s All World Consultants, Guylene Berry’s Global Solutions Agency, Attorney Scheril Murray Powell’s Cannurban LLC, and Lyneisha Watson’s Vivrant World Consulting.

“Lucius is a pioneering Black journalist and media professional with more than 40 years of relationships with Black print media owners nationwide. No one on the planet knows them like he does.

“Guylene, a media personality and community activist, is our critical link to the Haitian community nationally, particularly with Haitian women. Her English-Haitian Creole bilingual skills opened the Haitian community to MMERI in a way that had never been done.

“Lyneisha was our link to millennials and digital platforms with a focus on cannabis-industry online influencers.

“Attorney Powell, our internationally renowned cannabis industry subject-matter expert, brought a ton of contacts and knowledge to the MMERI project. We were able to access worldclass expertise due to her involvement.”

Cherry also complemented MMERI’s FAMU team, current MMERI Public Affairs Liaison Angela Hardiman and former Associate Director of the FAMU Office of Communications Carol Angela Davis.

“Carol and Angela had great energy. They built MMERI’s communications and community involvement infrastructure from scratch. They both represented FAMU well in their almost daily interactions with our company and our representatives.”

Next steps?

Cherry wants 623 Management to help MMERI further develop its emerging media network and feature a more multigenerational approach with a focus on eliminating confusion about medicinal and recreational cannabis.

“Our anecdotal data indicates there are real generational differences regarding attitudes about marijuana,” he explained.

“I’m a 64-year-old Baby Boomer. I have a different understanding about cannabis than does my 92-year-old mother, a member of the ‘Silent Generation.’ She has a different understanding about cannabis than does my 40-year-old ‘Generation X’ frat brother, or
my ‘Millennial’ 27-year-old cousin, or my ‘Generation Z’ 19-year-old daughter.

“MMERI must speak to all of us.”

Election season

And he’s looking to spread the message during this political season about the efficiency and effectiveness of Black-owned media outlets.

“There are credible and powerful networks of media outlets owned and operated by people of color in every state, including the state of Florida. A lot of candidates and the political parties don’t even know that these networks exist, much less how to access them.

“In addition to pumping millions of dollars into TV and digital messaging, candidates and parties must invest in utilizing the real, proven, traditional original influencers in Black and Brown communities in newspapers, on TV and radio, on social media and on websites and apps which can be accessed from various devices.

“It’s all of the above, if they want to win.”

For more information on MMERI, go to www.mmeri.famu.edu or contact Angela Hardiman at angela.hardiman@famu.edu. For more information on 623 Management, Inc., go to www.623management.com or contact Charles W. Cherry II at ccherry@623management.com.

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