We spoke with PR maven Sonia Hendrix, founder of Gallery PR based in New York City, about her career path that lead to cannabis, advice for other media members in the space, and getting people out of jail for cannabis.
Who are you personally and professionally? Can you describe the trajectory that brought you to where you are? You’ve seemingly been communications and PR focused since childhood – how did you know this was your calling?
‘In many ways, I believe we’re all defined by our roots. For me, it’s the past that made me who I am today — a people person, a woman who loves community, creativity, and shining a light on those who deserve it. Professionally, if I had to summarize who I am in one to two words, I’d describe myself as untraditional. A bit of a wild card. Strategic. A dreamer. Intense. People have referred to me before as the “underdog” and I can’t say I disagree. Given where I’m from and the odds I stood of getting to where I am now… then yes, I guess I am an underdog. That nuance is what makes my come-up story that much sweeter and the devotion I bring to work that much stronger. At the end of the day, it’s about results, and I carry the weight of that responsibility seriously.
I’m going to share my story for the first time in this Q&A, so thank you in advance to everyone who has the slightest iota of interest in learning where the hell this girl came from.
I have humble beginnings. I grew up in North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains, the youngest of three, in a pretty cool apartment that was connected to my family’s restaurant, Mi Casa. It was an amazing, albeit sheltered, atmosphere to grow up in. And trust me when I say, as the chef’s daughter, I worked hard. We all did. My parents instilled in me a strong work ethic that has never left. When I graduated high school, I actually left home. Unlike my friends though, I didn’t want to go to college yet. So instead I found myself working three jobs in Asheville, an amazing creative community in the Appalachian mountains, and just enjoyed life, being on my own for the first time in a new apartment with a new set of friends. I socialized a lot. My dad brought me up around music, and I used to sing a lot in my youth, so I also started singing blues music at venues with other artists in town. But then, the recession hit, and I saw my friends unable to pay their rent, lose jobs, etc. I wanted to help.
Then one night I woke up in the middle of a dream. It hit me like a ton of bricks. In the dream I was producing a fashion show and everyone who attended was there to support local designers. At that moment— I knew that’s how I could help my community. At that point I’d enrolled in a local college for my associate’s degree and was voted to be the Western Region VP of Phi Beta Lambda, where I oversaw 16 college chapters. I’d produce a fashion show and market it to Asheville locals and students. Ultimately, this snowballed to me producing three huge fashion events that got everybody talking, from Asheville to Charlotte and Charleston. My events were widely publicized in local media and even featured in SPIN Magazine. It was through this experience that I found my calling— that I needed to be a publicist. That same year I also read (iconic) Celebrity Fashion Publicist Kelly Cutrone’s book, “If You Have to Cry Go Outside” and I was awestruck. This woman, in my mind, was the shit. She got things done and had a way of doing it that was purely results driven, intense, and passionate, which I totally vibed with.
From there, I used everything I had produced, all the media coverage, photography and community feedback, to get accepted to The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
But then, unfortunately, I went from being on top of the world, to being hospitalized for a month. I spent two weeks fighting for my life before I came to, and then it took me a year to physically recover from the situation. It was a transformative experience. I left the hospital a different person from when I’d gone in. Suddenly, I wanted more out of life than I ever had before. I recovered, got into UNC, got my degree in Journalism and Mass Communication, with a focus in Public Relations. I launched SH+PR right out of college and quickly grew the business to over $70k in revenue, which felt like a lot at the time. I produced events and PR’d small accessory brands and designers. But I quickly hit a ceiling. I needed to do something bigger. At the same time, a client I had, brought into the world of global supply and manufacturing for their accessory line. I spent a year developing relationships with manufacturers in 16 countries from around the world. I had learned the true business of fashion. It gave me a renewed taste for top-level fashion PR. So I packed up my Range Rover, which I definitely shouldn’t have bought, but did, lol. And I drove from St. Louis to the Big Apple in pursuit of my dreams.
I arrived in New York without a job — and relentlessly applied for work until I got one. Stacie Henderson was my first boss. She’d just left her role as CMO at Versace where she’d been for a decade to become CMO at The World Trade Center’s Oculus project. Talk about a dream job. I learned so much in a very short amount of time from Stacie. My experience there gave me the chops I needed to prove I could work at a real New York fashion PR firm. One that was fast-paced, slightly cut throat, and fun. I landed at The Bromley Group where I stayed and built up my little black book. It was everything I had dreamed of. The experiences I had there were why I came to New York.
Over the next handful of years I climbed the ranks at TBG and other firms, eventually leading strategy and launch campaigns for celebrity fashion brands KENDALL+KYLIE, DL1961 and their Jessica Alba collaboration, The American Image Awards, GUESS Eyewear, and so on. I established myself as a force within, what I felt, was an extremely privileged and almost all-white agency environment. One thing that really set me apart at work, apart from the results I delivered, was my connection to editors and stylists. I doubled down on fostering strong relationships early on by taking every opportunity possible to network, socialize, meet, and party with editors and writers. In PR, your media relationships are everything. They define your value, because they define the types of placements you get and the quantity.
Now during these years I had a blast PR’ing the clients I represented. I did everything from producing celebrity launch parties in LA, to experiencing the tension of a crisis and learning how to solve it, to the excitement of securing a major feature. Perhaps most memorable are the legendary red carpet moments with people like Iris Apfel and Bill Cunningham.
Eventually though, I felt like I’d hit a ceiling. I was bored, I wasn’t getting promoted, and I wanted more. So I started going out for job interviews. I got into third round consideration at the one dream agency I’ve always wanted to work at — KCD. But it felt wrong. Like, I couldn’t bare to go work for another “cheerleader-esque” uptight PR agency that forced me to put on a version of myself that wasn’t me, just to fit in. One Friday after work, I just snapped. I needed to get out of the city for a few days to think, so I wound up buying an Amtrak ticket to upstate New York in Ticonderoga. I booked a cheap room at a fisherman’s motel. Made friends with a local, who rented a kayak out to me — and I got out on the water. I spent the entire day in that kayak. While I was out there, I kayaked up to a huge cliff face, called Roger’s Rock. It’s the site of a legendary chase that happened during the American Revolution. I sat at the base of it and looked up imagining the story with a joint in my hand, and Lynyrd Skynyrd blaring on my radio. That’s when it hit me– and I had the epiphany to start my own agency. In my heart I knew right then and there that I had to do it. There was no alternative. I needed to be the change in PR I wanted to see.
Funny enough, I couldn’t get a train back from the Adirondacks to New York, and I got back to the city on a Tuesday. I went to work ready to submit my notice. But, as fate would have it, I was let go for skipping work for a trip up to the mountains. Whoops. Lol. It worked out though. They gave me a nice severance check that wound up being the seed money needed to create what is now GALLERY PR. Everything came full circle for me. That was three years ago and I’ve never looked back. I built GALLERY into one of the most successful millennial-owned PR agencies in the country.
It feels unbelievable when I stop and think about it all.’
What was the transition from more traditional industries to the cannabis industry like? How is the balance today handling pr for businesses from both spaces?
‘In one word – amazing. To go from purely fashion, which can be quite vicious and close-minded, to cannabis, an industry built on the values of community and compassion for others, has been a dream. My clients and I are all very close. We do great work together. We make history together and that bonds us in a way that I never experienced with any of our fashion accounts. ‘
PR is seemingly such a hit or miss in any industry. Can you describe for our audience how to best select and build a relationship with a PR team or the press directly?
‘The value of a publicist is in their little black book, their ability to see “the big picture” to shape a brand’s image, and their ability to turn out results. Period.
When you’re looking for an agency, make sure you identify a firm that is a cultural fit, with clients you want to be seen alongside, and has a track record of securing the type of coverage you want for your company. Depending on the size of your brand you’ll need either a solo PR consultant or a larger firm with a team. Now I’m going to level with you, and let you know the big agencies can, at times, be misleading. In my experience, they’d CC an army of publicists onto a team/client email, while really the work falls on the shoulders of one to two senior publicists, max. This is why personally, I prefer boutique-size agencies. Those have the best culture and team dynamic. But if you’re a large corporation, the more corporate-style PR firms are better suited to you. That’s why I say to make sure it’s a cultural fit.
As a brand you need to be prepared to help your agency help you. That means having an excellent product, solid distribution, and a great customer service team. You must have strong visual assets to give your agency to use in the pitching/placement process. Allocate budget for regular mailers and creative events, which you should do every one to three months to support your media goals. These are just a few things to be thinking about.’
What is Gallery? Your work all seems to have a personal and authentic core – how do you maintain this?
‘Gallery is just that. A gallery of creative genius for the media to pull from based on my knowledge of what they want— and what they don’t want.
The personality of the agency is an extension of mine: passionate, charismatic, and devoted to winning.
When I started taking on cannabis clients, it was hard to get coverage (and still is) for a myriad of reasons. In spite of that, I immediately loved it. Cannabis was a brand new category, so to me it represented a challenge— new territory to explore. In that way the passion to do what hadn’t been done before superseded the disadvantage of promoting something that’s not legal, and therefore would be hard to get national media coverage on.
I genuinely care about uplifting the stories of the people to make meaningful, long-term change in the public’s attitudes toward cannabis, and I think that’s how I stay authentic in this space, by staying focused on the big picture goals beyond day-to-day placements and client wins.’
What are you looking forward to about the growth of the industry in New York, across the US and globally?
‘Wow. There are so many things I could say here. First and foremost, I look forward to people getting out of jail for cannabis. Also, I look forward to helping more “minority” owned brands get exposure. I’ve shifted my roster almost entirely with this in mind from when GALLERY first launched, to be the change I wanted to see.
Now in New York City, I look forward to luxury cannabis lounges being a thing. I believe people with a background in nightlife experiences and luxury real estate are going to come in and deliver some amazing, never-before-seen cannabis-smoking experiences that I am more than ready to be part of. I’m specifically looking forward to experiencing a lounge that accommodates women like myself, who want a sleek, beautiful environment to be in. Who doesn’t want smoke-ruining outfits. Who wants to feel like we’re in a good room to meet exciting creatives doing cool things. That is the future of cannabis in New York: lounges and social clubs. I’m also personally looking forward to becoming a member at a co-working space that allows people to smoke while working at their desk. Also, combining coffee and cannabis together in a cafe setting is something I’m hoping will proliferate in New York. After all, we drink an insane amount of coffee here.
Nationally, I think state packaging regulations over cannabis right now are insane. The packaging rules force small businesses to overspend on making a product their customers can hardly even open. All the plastic is a huge waste and it’s just not sustainable. So I’d like to see that change in every state with a cannabis program.
Finally, since I’ve been in the thick of pioneering American cannabis PR for three years and have had many, many incredible (and crazy lol) experiences, that make us great at what we do — I’ve started looking to European markets and watching the legalization activity overseas. I really believe that in the next five years, America’s next great export will be cannabis talent. The possibilities in foreign markets, specifically Europe and Northern Europe, really excite me. I feel like the sky’s the limit there and I want GALLERY to be part of it.’