Navigating Cannabis PR With Fluctuating Legislation

According to the Pew Research Center, “more than half of Americans (54%) live in a state where both recreational and medical marijuana are legal.” This number is even larger (74%) if you look at states with just medical cannabis.

While those who work in legal cannabis are actively awaiting industry-changing legislation and regulation, like SAFER Banking and rescheduling, regular consumers are getting ready to hit the polls in Florida to vote for adult-use cannabis. Other industry experts expect cannabis legalization to play a significant role in the upcoming election, with some suggesting that President’s Biden support of the plant could help clinch him a second term.

It seems we’ve been at the precipice of a cannabis tipping point for years, and we’ve finally hit it from a legal and access perspective. But how is media coverage being impacted?

The Cannabis Media Environment

From our conversations with writers and producers, many want to cover cannabis more and are generally pro-cannabis. It’s certainly a “sexier” topic that currently gets more clicks and views than similar subjects (it would be hard to get a broadcast camera to the opening of a neighborhood wine store, but they’re excited to cover a dispensary opening in a new market). But despite mass legalization, public acceptance and more reporter interest, there is still hesitation from some of the editorial decision-makers and coverage can be an uphill battle.

A very cannabis-friendly late-night show told us the network lawyers were still weary of having cannabis (even beverages and edible) on the show despite frequent alcohol consumption. Other editors for national women’s magazines have said we're told to exclusively discuss cannabis from a health and wellness perspective. And for this year’s 4/20 holiday, many freelancers said they weren’t getting stories timed to that holiday picked up by publications.

Held Back by State Lines

For national outlets, writing about cannabis brands is also much trickier than writing about other consumer products. While there are some national cannabis brands, because every state has a different law for potency and consumption type and all products must be grown in-state, there is very little national consistency. Many popular brands are only available in one or a few states. Unlike a beer that can be purchased online, if you’re a national publication recommending a cannabis product, it’s on option for a much smaller section of your readership.

Navigating Cannabis PR

So how should a PR professional navigate this complex legal and media landscape? Education is still necessary for both reporters and consumers. Because cannabis is so complex and different in every state (and can change on a dime), media outlets need industry experts who can help explain what is going on, what’s legal and how cannabis can be a wellness aid for consumers. This creates lots of opportunities for clients with backgrounds in medicine and the law who are media-trained to explain complex issues in layman's terms.

It’s also vital for anyone in cannabis PR to work in lockstep with a client’s government relations team. This helps to ensure you are proactively planning for cannabis related votes that can be turned into media moments, and you can creatively leverage elected officials and other political decision makers to build community support.

The Local vs. National Angle

Prioritizing local news is also a must. These outlets are hungry for cannabis stories, especially in newly-legal states. They’re also vital for cannabis brands because the viewers and readers of local press are in a position to actually buy those cannabis products.

For national coverage, it’s less about product and more about story. Who was it developed by? What was their inspiration? What did they have to overcome? How has it positively changed the lives of specific customers? Highlighting the human-interest elements behind a brand and not the specific product they’re selling helps to remove a hurdle for brands that can only be purchased in limited markets.

When it comes to cannabis, the press can be as fickle as the industry itself, but because it’s still a hot emerging industry, it’s full of opportunities that will hopefully grow as federal legalization moves forward.

Samantha Qualls is a Vice President at Marino and heads communications for the Cannabis Media Council.