What Is Cannabis PR?

What is cannabis public relations? At its simplest, the profession revolves around deliberately crafting and managing the release and distribution of vital information between an individual or an organization and the public, with the goal of shaping brand visibility and perception through earned media. In industries that are relatively new, highly regulated or technical — all three describe cannabis — public relations also aims to educate the public and help consumers understand how to incorporate a range of novel and innovative products and services into their lives.

Public Relations Examples

Strategic and successful public relations programs always require commitment to long-term goals. Building meaningful relationships with media and other storytelling partners, educating key demographics and developing consistent messaging all takes time. The most fruitful partnerships and PR campaigns emerge only when both the agency and client accept responsibility for working closely with members of the media. 

Public relations might include:

  • News Releases: an official announcement delivered to media that provides information or an official statement.
  • Proactive Pitches: the development of compelling stories to generate brand awareness through media engagement.
  • Rapid Response / Newsjacking: the tactical practice of using current events or news stories in such a way as to promote or advertise one’s product or brand.
  • Lead Monitoring Services: tracking how often a brand appears in digital, print and broadcast media, as well as tracking potential trends or breaking stories that could be  narrative opportunities for brands
  • Award and Conference Submissions: positioning a brand’s key team members as thought leadership experts by applying to be considered for awards like the Clios or presentation opportunities at conferences like MJBizCon and other industry speaking events

Print magazines are a classic example of earned media, from industry favorites like MG Magazine and High Times to more traditional publications like the Wall Street Journal and alt-weeklies such as Denver’s Westword

Earned Media

Earned media dwells at the heart of many PR strategies. Powerful earned media is coverage on third-party media platforms that PR professionals secure through relationships with journalists and potent and persuasive storytelling. Effective earned media stories can bridge the gap between a brand’s broad messaging goals and compelling content. Media channels might include:

  • Broadcast: TV, radio, podcasts
  • Digital: Online articles, blogs, gift guides
  • Print: Newspapers, magazines
  • B2B trade publications
  • Customer reviews and testimonials
  • Speaking engagements

Owned Media

Owned media represents another area of content development that can contribute to a public relations strategy, particularly in cases where PR is part of an integrated marketing approach. Unlike earned media, which hinges on third-party publishing platforms, owned media consists of content published on brand’s own channels. Examples include:

  • Web copy
  • Blogs
  • Social media
  • Email Marketing

Savvy public relations strategies use owned media to amplify earned and paid PR efforts. A brand might, for example, share its latest earned media hits on LinkedIn or through an email blast. Or a company wrestling with crisis communications might turn to Facebook or Twitter to post a retraction or clarification. Businesses use blog posts about myriad things, including earned media placements, to boost brand awareness through SEO gains. And web copy serves as a foundational tool for establishing brand values and brand voice, which should be maintained across all PR and marketing efforts.

Cannabis advertising regulations are heavily impacted by federal prohibition in the United States, making paid media a tricky proposition without professional PR guidance

Paid Media

Paid media is exactly what it sounds like—paying fees to engage with target audiences through strategic channels. Smart marketers often align paid media efforts with earned and owned media, to improve brand awareness in tactical ways. That might look like: 

  • Pay-per-click search engine marketing
  • Boosting social media posts
  • Pay-to-play thought leadership
  • Sponsored advertorials
  • Broadcast or podcast ads
  • Event sponsorships
  • Influencer marketing
  • Billboards and display advertising  

Reactive and Proactive PR

Public relations efforts are traditionally categorized as reactive or proactive. With reactive PR, communications professionals launch strategic and managed responses to current events, or implement crisis management practices to counteract negative messaging or news. When professionals pursue proactive PR, they develop and pitch compelling stories to generate brand awareness. While proactive PR is often what leaps to mind when people think of PR, both proactive and reactive are necessary parts of any public relations strategy.

Reactive PR

Reactive PR might include shifting negative narratives impacting public perceptions of brands; aligning brands with broad local and national events that impact primary customers, even if the messaging is not explicitly about the brand; or reframing company organizational turmoil, such as a CEO’s resignation, in ways that reassure the public and investors.

Brands engage with crisis communications for many reasons, ranging from wrestling with natural disasters to explaining supply chain delays to responding to product recalls or staffing crises. Planning for crisis communications is essential, and just as necessary as pursuing positive and proactive PR efforts. Reactive public relations is by its nature a response to unforeseen circumstances or press. An important strategic goal for brands is anticipating potential negative feedback and planning responses in advance. The last thing a brand wants is to get caught off guard. 

Responsivity, transparency, authenticity and accountability stand as key tenets of successful reactive public relations campaigns. So is speed. No matter the challenge, rapid responses are vital. This speaks to the need for advance planning for crisis communications. At the same time, responses must come across as transparent and honest. If the messaging sounds like spin, or suggests things are being concealed, this could compound the negative impressions the PR campaign is working to reverse. 

Finally, today’s dynamic and sprawling media environment demands accountability. Promptly acknowledging harm caused by the crisis at hand and empathizing with affected parties will help avoid “us vs. them” perceptions that make brands come across as callous or out of touch.

Proactive PR

Proactive PR represents the meat and potatoes of any strategy. This is the offensive game—the opportunity to strategically deploy messaging where a brand’s target audience is most likely to see it and to inject a company into broader local and national discourses. Proactive PR efforts can look like:

  • Pitching news releases
  • Media training
  • Thought leadership speaking engagement applications
  • Pitching thought leadership columns
  • Event marketing
  • Crossovers, collaborations and partnerships

Content strategist Meghan O’Dea gesticulates while recording a podcast episode as part of earned media acquisition

Telling brand stories through cannabis PR

A good PR strategy typically includes all of the above elements, blending proactive and reactive approaches and a mix of earned, owned and paid media depending on the health of a brand’s image as well as its marcomms goals and budget. But the throughline connecting all of those efforts is storytelling—compelling and consistent narratives that educate the public about brands, products and services and the values that distinguish them from the competition. 

A strong narrative foundation is especially important for cannabis brands. For decades, the plant endured intense stigmatization based on harmful propaganda. As the legal industry now emerges and flourishes, cannabis brands should devote resources toward shaping more positive, fact-based messaging surrounding the industry and the plant itself.

Brand approaches toward cannabis marketing narratives vary quite a bit.

Some professional cannabis narratives lean into touchstones of the underground market of the past, playing with themes like rebellion and enduring hallmarks of 420 marketing. Others shrink from stoner stereotypes and work to advance cannabis culture in ways that appeal to broader demographics and new audiences, or highlight the diverse communities that have long been part of advancing cannabis legality and reducing stigma.

In many cases, the difference in tone and theme hinges on the size of the cannabis company. Plucky startups might embrace the plant’s more renegade past. Big MSOs and established enterprises, on the other hand, often steer messaging toward more inclusive themes, such as wellness. Finally, storytelling and marketing vary depending on the kind of business. Dispensaries and plant-touching companies might call for different PR and communications strategies than ancillary services like law and accounting firms, and staffing agencies.

Integrated marketing and PR for cannabis companies

One thing all cannabis businesses should keep in mind as they develop PR strategies is to broadcast their unique narratives consistently across all marketing and communications platforms. Integrated marketing strategies deploy PR and marketing collaboratively, instead of pursuing PR and marketing goals separately in silos. 

For example, marketing team members might broadcast blog and social posts on owned media channels to support the publication of earned media placements secured by the PR team. Another example: the PR team sending news releases to journalists promoting a new marketing or advertising campaign or event partnership.

Other integrated marketing tactics could involve carving out a spot on the company website for placing client testimonials, and showcasing media placements, podcast recordings and thought leadership speaking engagements. They could even include the production of case studies and gated content like white papers to evaluate the success of past PR campaigns or triumphant crisis management engagements.

Developing Key Messaging for Cannabis Brands

A strong sense of identity, conveyed through key messaging, serves as the foundation of all marketing and PR strategies. Companies seeking to pursue public relations projects should keep the brand’s major value propositions top of mind as they develop strategy and tactics. The 4 Cs of public relations remain as relevant today as decades ago: 

  • Clear: Make key points clear to help keep conversations on track, whether they are being conveyed live, such as with journalists, or written.
  • Concise: If you have too many points, you’ll lose focus
  • Consistent: All supporting materials should convey the same key messages
  • Call to Action: Make sure to include prompts urging people to act in strategic ways for the brand. This can include signing up for a newsletter, engaging with brand social media, signing a petition and much more.

Public Relations and Thought Leadership for Cannabis Brands

One important and valuable segment of proactive public relations is thought leadership. Thought leadership represents an opportunity for professionals to share their expertise at conferences, industry trade shows and other speaking engagements like TEDx Talks, as well as through podcasts, interviews, radio and television broadcasts and earned media columns. 

Thought leadership can be especially useful for cannabis companies that find their opportunities to leverage paid and social media limited by cannabis advertising restrictions stemming from federal prohibition. It’s also an opportunity to advance PR and marketing goals and brand narrative while establishing company team members as trusted resources. For example, the thought leadership presentation itself can be announced ahead of time in e-blasts and news releases. 

Audiences attending live events, of course, hear presentations by thought leaders, regardless of whether it’s in-person or through something like a webcast. But so do many others who encounter presentations after they have concluded, thanks to sharing on platforms like YouTube, Vimeo, Apple Music and Spotify. Excellent editorial thought leadership such as written columns and audiovisual assets, too, can gain invaluable word-of-mouth momentum when fans share the work through social media and other owned media channels.

Grasslands 2021 summer interns Andre Hascall (middle) and Erick Rivera (right) collaborating with Grasslands Founder and CEO Ricardo Baca (left) at the agency’s Denver offices.

Media Training for Cannabis Leadership

Success in thought leadership, as with all PR, requires honest assessments and understandings of the public-facing value of organizations’ primary spokespeople, as well as the mission, values and voice of the brand itself. Media training offers one powerful way for cannabis professionals to hone their skills as thought leaders and stay on point for engagements with journalists or during event appearances.

Performing public persona audits helps companies decide which thought leadership opportunities are appropriate for different members of the company. They also mitigate potential crisis comms. After all, businesses are made up of people. For a brand to earn a reputation for expertise and excellence, the people representing the brand must align polished messaging and project a unified front.

Consider: when media requests come through, a vital first step is assessing the journalist for credibility, past relationships with the brand, and the tone, depth and quality of stories they have produced. Brands should hold their own spokespeople to the same standards.

Even the most talented spokespeople benefit from media training. Public relations professionals teach cannabis leaders about how to dress, make eye contact, use body language and maintain agreeable energy through interviews and speaking engagements to subtly reinforce spoken messaging.
Working with a cannabis-fluent PR firm places trained professionals in companies’ corners, helping teams navigate the essentials of communicating effectively with members of the media while remaining compliant with rigid cannabis regulations. Excellent training, too, helps cannabis leaders find ways during interviews and presentations to engage with broader discourses about this blossoming and thriving industry.

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