Industry Spotlight: Legalization and PR Opportunities Grow in CBD and Cannabis


[Editor's Note: As part of our new Industry Spotlight series, PRNEWS talked to Agency A-List Top 100 honorees in the CBD and cannabis sector about working in this emerging space.]

With 68 percent of Americans supporting legalization of marijuana, and more states making it legal (New Jersey is the latest), many wonder how the Biden-Harris administration could further advance the industry.

As of the end of 2020, cannabis was legal for adults in 15 states and Washington, D.C., with four more voting for legalization. One of the first states to legalize marijuana, Colorado reported $1 billion in state revenue, after just three and a half years.

The business opportunity for cannabis (as well as CBD and hemp), then, appears significant, with many opportunities in the PR space–as long as communicators do the legwork and learn the sector's intricacies. In that respect, it's similar to crafting PR strategies for any sector.

Getting Started

Spool Marketing and Communications had its foot in cannabis from the start.

“I wanted to delve into emerging spaces,” says its CEO Catherine Merritt. She adds, laughing, “I’m probably the only Grateful Dead fan who doesn’t like to smoke pot.”

Spool's first client was dosist, whose then marketing chief was a college friend of Merritt's.

Working with dosist allowed Merritt to gain a "knowledge base about...the leading brands and companies within the cannabis space,” she says.

Durée Ross’s initial foray came when an existing client sought help on a new venture. As a part-time resident of Colorado, Ross, president and CEO of Durée and Company, had seen the impact of legalization on the local economy.

At the time, though, “I was transparent and said I don’t know much about it,” she recalls. “I was very interested but [told the client] I needed time to figure it out.”

Ross entered the hemp industry first. “Once [hemp] was federally legal, I started to pull the bandaid back...As an agency owner I was [initially] scared to say I was working with hemp and CBD,” she admits. But “I never had someone ask, ‘Why are you doing this?’”

Ross now sits on the board of The Florida Hemp Council and the Cannabis Marketing Association. The agency is a corporate partner of Cannabis LAB. Her involvement in these groups helps her keep track of regulatory and legal issues.

Wise Collective, another player in the space, is a veteran of the AgTech sector. It supported the launch of Rabobank’s FoodBytes! Food Innovation Festival series in 2015. Through that work Wise "started seeing the broader applications of extraction and infusion technologies, vertical farming and related agricultural cultivation innovations beyond just the food supply,” says Harrison Wise, president, Wise Collective.

“It was this ‘aha’ moment, plus a few key connections, that opened the door for our engagement with MedMen, in 2015. We worked closely with their CEO to help them own the 'Mainstreaming of Cannabis' mantle at a pivotal moment in California’s path to adult-use legalization.”

The PR Opportunity

These communicators see a huge opportunity for PR in this growing space, especially because advertising is highly regulated. One area of regulation that remains consistent regardless of the state, says Wise, is health claims. “You cannot imply the product does things it can’t deliver and isn't backed up by research or data.”

Wise recommends removing CBD and hemp keywords from ad creative. Replace them with euphemisms, such as “plant-based remedies" or “high-fidelity lifestyle images…with CBD or cannabis advertising, less is more,” he says.

In addition, there are informal rules on social media that communicators in the sector need to know. “Cannabis and CBD marketers and brands [need] to understand what’s acceptable and what’s not [on social media] to avoid being shadow banned, or blocked out,” Wise says.

PR, Merritt says, is important since the space changes quickly, particularly around rules and regulations.

Stakeholders are not just end users and media, but also budtenders, who work in dispensaries. Similar to other PR opportunities, a key, says Merritt, is figuring out how to engage with constituencies “and creating media placements that they can share with their audiences…[It’s about] thinking through the longer lens and understanding there are many touchpoints to extend the life of the media placement.”

An Industry Not for the Faint of Heart

“Any agency looking to grow and expand [into this] practice area has to be attentive to the ins and outs on a state-by-state basis,” cautions Merritt. “There’s no cookie cutter approach.”

While cannabis and marijuana often are grouped together, the PR approach is very different. For example, you can ship samples of hemp and CBD—but not marijuana—over county lines.

A unique challenge to working in the industry, points out Ross, is that, “as a PR practitioner, you want to get the products in the hands of journalists. But you can’t do that with marijuana.”

In addition, the FDA can, and does, issue warning letters to manufacturers who make claims outside the legal boundaries. Claims may include things as seemingly innocuous as a hashtag saying #painfree.

“The first thing a journalist asks is, 'What can I use the product for?'" PR pros are not able to answer the question because that would be making a claim, Ross says.

Another challenge is the nature of the product. It tends to draw people who are fans of using CBD or marijuana, but don't necessarily know how to create effective messages about it, Merritt says. “Brands looking for PR and marketing partners need to find people who are equipped to become experts in the space,” she adds.

Ross agrees. “There’s a perspective that [this industry] is like any CPG and it’s easy to sell. But every day there are dozens of new products on the consumer side.” Communicators must “cut through the clutter and speak the lingo." PR firms without cannabis-industry experience may find the learning curve steep. A lot of companies lack the patience to wait for a PR firm "to figure it all out," she says.

The Work

Some of the most recent work for Merritt’s firm was for Dry January. “That was a real opportunity because a lot of people’s definition [of Dry January] encompassed alcohol, but people explored cannabis…to leverage that moment.”

While there’s a lot that must be left unsaid, pitches can include data, points of differentiation about products and even, in some instances, news of retail sales.

Outside of the creative work, though, there’s a constant information flow: new competitors and policies, as well as who has filed claims and received warning letters.

“We have to identify our trends, be scrappy and very connected with what’s going on in the trade, within pop culture, regulation and legal. We have to have our finger on the pulse of everything,” Ross says.

There's also a lot of crisis work, says Ross. There have been instances, for example, where law enforcement visited hemp growers, thought it was marijuana and seized the product. "Law enforcement often doesn’t know if a flower is hemp or marijuana or, oftentimes [doesn't] understand the difference between the two...This could create a gigantic crisis situation for publicists to navigate."

Despite the challenges, those in the trenches remain excited about the sector's potential and fast-moving nature, particularly as the 2018 Farm Bill takes effect March 22.

“You have to understand the ever-changing opportunities to make sure you don’t get your clients in trouble unknowingly,” says Ross. “In a million years I couldn’t have imagined this. [My  initial client] asked if I was up for the challenge, and I said, 'Yes, I’m up for it.'”

Erika Bradbury is editorial director PRNEWS and the Social Shake-Up