By Cassandra Dowell
One of the most effective public relations campaigns involving cannabis in America has had its hysteria-inducing hold on people’s perceptions of the plant for decades, but new campaign strategies reveal how innovations in public relations are transforming mainstream views.
“We are reversing the damage done by the most impressive campaign ever: Reefer Madness,” said Cynthia Salarizadeh, director of public relations at CrowdFund Connect, Inc., which creates custom branded crowdfunding sites. CFC’s flagship site is CannaFundr, a platform for accredited investors to access opportunities in the legal cannabis industry.
The cannabis industry presents unique challenges for publicists. In fact, some public relations agencies may decline a cannabis-related client for fear of upsetting clients in other industries who may not appreciate the association. “Some are concerned about alienating other clients,” Salarizadeh said.
Then there are the companies that want to be known in the cannabis space “without talking about cannabis,” said Evan Nison, founder of cannabis communication and strategic advisory firm NisonCo. “There is a lot of diversity in the comfort level of different people in talking about marijuana, and we need to navigate through that wide variety of goals and missions,” he said. NisonCo represents companies including Terra Tech (OTCQB: TRTC) and Potbotics, Inc.
Public Relations Advocacy
While public relations agencies are dedicated to their clients, those in the cannabis space are also interested in the wellbeing of the industry at large. That can mean passing on a client who might negatively impact the sector’s image. “In doing public relations in the cannabis industry we also need to weed out the bad actors,” Nison said.
Driving many publicists engaged in the cannabis space is a genuine belief that cannabis should be legal.
Salarizadeh is currently supporting efforts in Florida to pass medical marijuana legislation in 2016. Last year, voters narrowly rejected the legalization of marijuana for medical use. The use of a non-euphoric strain of marijuana, nicknamed Charlotte’s Web, is legal in the state to treat certain health conditions; however, efforts underway support a much broader medical marijuana referendum for a range of conditions.
Salarizadeh is based out of Tampa’s cannabis-focused business incubator Common Bond Collaborative, where CannaFundr is based, and working alongside the Florida Cannabis Coalition. “I’m here to help turn things around,” Salarizadeh said. “As soon as we can get legislation moving in the right direction we can go full force within the industry and start doing some good. The goal of most publicists is to clean up the image of cannabis the best we can. We know that people are hurt by outdated drug laws.”
Using Personal Narrative to Engage
Overcoming negative stereotypes of cannabis is achieved by sharing well developed personal narratives of cannabis consumers, Salarizadeh explained. “The biggest challenge is trying to find the best way to tell the story without people [clinging] to their old way of thinking,” she said, noting that publicists are up against powerful opposition parties, such as big pharma and big oil. “We find specific topics and then dig into it.”
What stories publicists choose to tell depends on the audience. “If I’m pitching something to Forbes, I’m talking about economics,” she said. “If I’m talking to an outlet that is more community or health-based, I’m talking about epilepsy [and how medical marijuana can help].”
In Tampa, Salarizadeh is digging into the stories of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder who can benefit from medical marijuana. Tampa is home to MacDill Air Force Base, which also supports a large military retiree community. “We’re going in the direction of personal storytelling,” she said. “The cannabis industry is being forced to innovate in this way. If people don’t get this particular medicine, they are at a loss. Some of these stories are gut-wrenching, but it is the only way to turn around the taboo and show what this plant is capable of.”
Seeing Challenge as Opportunity
Another way cannabis is leaving its mark in public relations is the opportunity it provides for smaller companies and entrepreneurs to gain a solid foothold in the multi-billion dollar industry.
Federal regulation and myths surrounding cannabis prevent many larger companies from entering the rapidly evolving market. “Stigmas that prevent very large companies from entering give us smaller companies an opportunity to build up,” Nison said. “This is helping to shape the industry in a great way.”
In order to best serve their clients, publicists in the cannabis field are challenged to find ways to both educate and engage the public regarding lawful cannabis use. Many are rising to the occasion by creating innovative strategies that are changing the public relations playing field—one story at a time.