Media Relations Challenges, Opportunities of Working in Cannabis PR

More than 85 years have passed since “Reefer Madness” debuted, initially created as propaganda to “educate” young people about the dangers of marijuana. Gen X may remember former First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign against the rise of the crack/cocaine epidemic, but the rhetoric trickled down to school children of all ages. Elder millennials may recall anti-drug messaging in pop culture, including episodes of “Saved by the Bell” (There’s No Hope With Dope) and after-school specials.

Fast forward to 2022, where legalization of cannabis in many U.S. states has created an industry. Everyone from city councils to Martha Stewart wants in on the commercial groundswell. The vast array of products is far removed from the traditional plant and smoke image.

For instance, Stewart’s CBD (cannabidiol) line includes wellness gummies in flavor blends like Meyer lemon and kumquat. Sephora offers beauty items. Many national grocery chains sell CBD products on end caps—around the corner from vitamins.

Every industry needs someone steering messages, and several PR agencies have taken the lead to promote positive conversation despite the continuing stigma surrounding CBD and cannabis.

“Cannabis is increasingly grabbing more and more attention across PR and marketing, as the industry becomes less and less taboo for brands to begin taking the growth seriously,” says Nick Weatherhead, founder and CEO of The Supreme Agency. “The culture is completely different now.”

Start with Education

Not everyone who enters the cannabis PR space is an expert. As in many communication positions in regulated industries, there’s a lot of education required, sometimes on the job.

For example, Marino PR invests in its team, helping staff learn the industry, says Samantha Qualls, a VP. In addition, many Marino employees have government backgrounds. As such, they have an understanding of legal processes and how government timelines work. This is especially helpful in navigating media through the legalese when pitching cannabis-related stories.

“Holistically, you need to make sure your team has the time to become experts in these things—it won’t happen overnight,” Qualls says. “Have them go to events, webinars, invest time and financial resources.”

Kim Prince, principal at Proven Media, stays up to date via professional networking. She’s a board member of the Arizona Cannabis Chamber of Commerce.

“Before the start of every board meeting, we trade industry updates,” Prince says.

Weatherhead even had his team sit down with an influential politician to learn more; the firm participated in an Instagram Live chat with New York Sen. Chuck Schumer about legislation he is co-sponsoring.

CBD vs Cannabis

An example where education is crucial relates to the differences between CBD and cannabis. While some may mistake them for a similar product, regulatory guidelines vary drastically between the two. For example, CBD is legal in all U.S. states, other than Idaho and Kentucky.

On the other hand, laws governing cannabis vary drastically between states. Cannabis is highly regulated and available from licensed dispensaries only. It requires stricter testing than CBD—which is less regulated and available for sale online and at retailers ranging from groceries to gas stations.

As such, regulation of communication around CBD is more relaxed. Proprietors can and do peddle claims about its effectiveness and ingredients.

With cannabis, though, regulations proscribe messaging, similar to prescription drugs. Accordingly, Qualls recommends media relations pros pitch stories about labs, testing and safety precautions. These topics help promote consumer trust and a reputation for quality, she adds.

Regulation and Media Relations

In addition to familiarizing themselves with laws and regulations, media relations pros in the sector must understand coverage trends and preferences. For instance, some news outlets have guidelines pertaining to cannabis stories.

“A parenting magazine will not post articles saying 'cannabis is the new mommy wine,'" even if that is an emerging audience, says Tekisha Harvey, director of marketing at FlowerHire, an employment recruiter working in the cannabis sector. “They don’t want to damage their reputation, so there is this fear."

As such, even though it is a burgeoning industry and there's a flood of coverage surrounding marijuana's hot job market, placing stories is challenging at times, Harvey admits.

High Times or Esquire?

Specialized media knowledge also comes into play when media relations pros venture beyond popular cannabis-themed outlets, such as High Times or Dope Magazine, aiming for mainstream publications and platforms.

Everyday pot smokers are not going to High Times, Weatherhead argues. Instead, some head to Esquire "to read about a lifestyle lens story that is associated with something that they care about." Accordingly, Weatherhead approaches [cannabis] as a lifestyle product. "Everybody else wants to be on the cover of Green Entrepreneur, but we want USA Today. We want Associated Press.”

Similarly, Harvey appreciates a more mainstream approach for coverage. Her company serves the industry, filling positions from the C-suite to budtenders at local dispensaries, but has nothing to do with the physical product.

Still, she believes "the more [CBD and cannabis coverage is] in the media, the more that people hear different stories, personal stories, industry stories, the more normalized that it can become.”

Aside from appealing to the mainstream, some PR pros still favor targeting audiences in specialized publications. For Qualls, industry trade outlets have been responsive, particularly when promoting B2B cannabis products.

“We identify other ancillary companies that will be affected [by innovation],” Qualls says. She sites CBD beverages as an example.

“I’m a huge believer in trade coverage,” she says. “It’s not just about reaching the largest number of people, but the right number of people. Clients ask for numbers and impressions, but the smaller target number can be more impactful. Reporters at trade pubs really are experts and know the story. They think about this day in and day out."

And Qualls says building relationships with reporters who cover cannabis at smaller outlets may pay dividends in the long run, as they move along in their career.

“It’s an emerging space,” she says. “You don’t know where that reporter is going to go or who they are going to be. A small outlet can be a fantastic hit to move the needle.”

Nicole Schuman is a reporter for PRNEWS. Follow her @buffalogal