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The cannabis PR problem — and how to fix it

March 28, 2024

Three years ago this month, New York officially passed the Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act (MRTA), legalizing adult-use cannabis across the state. Since then, the Office of Cannabis Management has opened in Albany; more than 80 legal dispensaries have opened across the state; and work to aid communities disproportionately affected by years of cannabis criminalization is ongoing.   

Despite this perceived progress—and the dramatic increase in people who have tried cannabis and support legalization—the industry is still struggling to find its footing across New York markets. Among the chief reasons responsible for these difficulties include prevailing cultural stereotypes, which continue to undermine business more than a year after the state officially opened its legal market. Negative perceptions by some individuals in power are preventing operators from securing things like commercial real estate and accessing traditional business services like banking and insurance, and in doing so, are ignoring cannabis’s actual operating reality.

The cannabis industry is a now-legitimate trade built on collaboration and invested in its host communities. It’s one of hard-working entrepreneurs eager to educate the public and contribute to neighborhood vitality. It’s a great story—and the cannabis community needs to do a better job of telling it.

Enter the narrative skills of public relations professionals.

It is now essential for cannabis companies—whether it be dispensaries, growers, or processors—to consider PR operations from the start. The long-standing federal prohibition on cannabis has limited what brands can say or do in paid advertising and on social media, so in many ways, earned media is the best way to shape clear narratives and build trust with new audiences.

But sharing your story in a complex and highly stigmatized space like what cannabis occupies isn’t easy. Brands are smart to seek help from communications professionals early on when it comes to developing key messages and finding ways to secure quality media coverage.

Since the start of legalization, we at The Martin Group have witnessed an industry in its infancy move from the margins to mainstream. And since then, we have immersed ourselves in this evolving business sector and have worked with professionals across the cannabis industry to communicate their story in an authentic, engaging and informative way. From grand openings and cannabis growers’ showcases to navigating the communications challenges posed by government red tape, we’ve provided high-level counsel and winning strategic guidance when our clients have needed it most.

Here are some ways we’ve done it.

Answer cannabis concerns with expertise and transparency

Legalized recreational cannabis is a brand-new industry. And like any new industry, it needs to answer plenty of questions—and from plenty of different parties.

Politicians. Community leaders. Neighborhood associations. Concerned parents and curious consumers. All are vastly different personas, but all need distinct and specific answers to shape their evolving understanding. Since legalization began in some states across the U.S., cannabis consumption has surged across diverse demographics, with nearly half of Americans having tried it. It is a broad audience that spans recreational users, connoisseurs, health-conscious individuals, “canna-curious,” and the aforementioned policymakers and inquisitive public.

Because of this, PR professionals are tasked with addressing these various audiences with insightful, honest answers from an industry rising from the ground up. It’s the start of a communicative relationship between consumer and purveyor—and like any relationship, it needs to be built on trust.

Educate the public

From decades of social taboo to scenes from the government-produced Reefer Madness, cannabis use comes with generations of misinformation and historical baggage. 

The 2024 reality? Attitudes about cannabis are changing, and legal cannabis is one thing Americans agree onperhaps more than anything else. Stigmas are breaking down, and it’s clear to us education is the differentiator and will be key in continuing to bridge the gap between misperception and objective reality. By positioning our clients as cannabis educators and advocates for change, we are creating true leaders in this space who are poised to change the narrative for good.

It’s this education that will allow us to create a society in which cannabis is not simply tolerated, but appreciated for its myriad capabilities.

Assist (and educate) reporters

Journalists inform our days, impact our daily decisions, and serve as a messenger on the issues of the moment. Unfortunately, when it comes to cannabis, some still rely on old tropes to facilitate a changing discussion.

Once again, this illuminates the need for PR specialists to also be educators—for everyone. Yes, there are some reporters on the cannabis beat or taking a special interest in reporting on it, but most reporters we work with don’t have that luxury. A vast majority of journalists are now generalists, with no beat or specialization. While the onus is always on us to assist them in their work and be collaborative partners in their storytelling, we also have another opportunity: to provide informed guidance that can facilitate a greater understanding of a new topic.

And through their reporting, possibly change the public perception of a plant, its benefits, and its affiliated culture.

Stay current on industry news and the regulatory landscape

Keeping informed on current events and evolving regulations in the cannabis space is fundamental in our commitment to education and transparency, helping us anticipate industry trends and craft communications that are precise, credible, and compliant. By staying informed on the legal and regulatory changes in cannabis messaging, we can identify and mitigate potential risks and safeguard both our clients’ interests and reputation, thus reaffirming our position as trusted advisors.

It also helps us see potential issues before they arise, or seize opportunities for positive exposure.   

As New York’s cannabis landscape evolves, so too does our role in shaping its narrative. Our dedication to this growing industry has provided us with a level of expertise that we believe positions us to drive meaningful change. And with every story, a more inclusive and informed discourse surrounding cannabis in our communities.    

Kate Measer

Public Relations Director

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