PR, Not Propaganda: Shaping the Cannabis Narrative

Make sure your company is telling the right stories to the right audiences

No matter what the industry or challenge, you can bet there are public relations professionals working behind the scenes to help shape the narrative and drive the conversation, whether locally, regionally, nationally or globally.

While legal cannabis is still a relatively new and somewhat controversial industry, it’s by far one of the most promising and exciting rapid-growth business sectors to emerge since the tech explosion of the 1990s.

As the legal cannabis industry has begun maturing, a very engaged audience of cannabis consumers has grown more visible. And as veterans of a lifetime of being targeted by advertising and marketing, they’re more discerning with their likes and dislikes, making public relations a key element that can mean the difference between success and failure.


The Current Landscape

According to a recent Pew Research Center study, public perception and support for the legalization of cannabis are now well into majority territory. As expected, there are wide generational and partisan differences in support — largely driven by decades of propaganda and outright falsehoods that cemented a negative stigma associated with marijuana and marijuana consumers that persists today.

While the industry continues to labor under strict regulatory marketing and advertising restraints, there is a prime opportunity for cannabis business professionals to elevate not only their own organizations but the industry at large — all through the power of public relations and storytelling.

With more emerging research and medical applications for the plant and its compounds, combined with the incredible range of jobs fueling employment growth, an astounding number of avenues have opened for public relations professionals to go to work. Good PR can help drive change and shape positive new perceptions. Great PR can and will win over propaganda.


Beyond the Press Release

Now is the time to build your reputation and raise your profile. That means going way beyond the simple press release. Today, a solid business marketing strategy includes branding, marketing, digital and PR strategies for distribution to multiple channels and market demographics. Here are some of the ways PR can assist cannabis organizations:

– Media relations: Good PR helps build brand support. Educating the consumer and other media behaviors requires regular, relevant and timely communication that generates interest. The goal is to cultivate and build support, gradually shift consumer behavior and perceptions and then maintain the positive support.

– Community relations: Community relations develops local relationships and support for the organization, calls attention to how the organization is benefiting the community, educates and shapes opinions of the community at large and generates interest in products and services.

– Crisis communications and management: A proper PR crisis management plan establishes protocols for your organization to take when dealing with an intensely difficult situation. Understanding how your team can respond to a PR crisis and implementing a structured response can help minimize harm to your organization’s brand image and reputation when it matters the most. A proper PR crisis management plan includes clearly outlined steps to assist with a crisis before, during and after an incident. Creating a proactive plan to tackle various situations helps your organization offer a timely response that doesn’t add fuel to the fire.

– Media training: Key spokespeople for your organization may be asked to appear in on-camera interviews for a variety of purposes. We’ve all seen examples of missteps, embarrassing gaffes and just not-ready-for-prime-time behavior. The fallout from these types of situations can quickly shift the public perception and brand narrative onto a negative path. Thinking on your feet while looking and sounding great is of utmost importance. PR professionals provide media training and expert guidance to make certain that company representatives’ media appearances are positive, on point and productive.

– Earned media: Generating media and consumer interest happens in many ways, and PR pros and media thrive on the “get.” From story pitching and placement and contributing content to print, digital and broadcast interviews, podcasts and other platforms to identifying and engaging influencers, the opportunities are there for the taking. It’s your PR team’s job to create a strategic plan that aligns with business initiatives and goals and then generate excitement and interest with the right audiences so your company gets noticed in all the right ways.


The Bottom Line

As the old saying goes, fortune favors the bold. Whether it’s business-to-business or business-to-consumer, the cannabis industry at large includes a wide range of support and ancillary services that all have interesting and compelling stories to tell.

Make sure your company is telling the right stories to the right audiences, and you’ll be building your profile and brand in ways that enhance public perception and opinions, and ultimately, your bottom line.


Melissa DiGianfilippo is a partner and president of PR at Serendipit Consulting, a full-service PR, marketing and design agency based in Phoenix, Arizona. She leads all of the firm’s clients’ public relations and communications efforts. Under her direction, Serendipit clients have achieved millions of dollars in positive press coverage across international, national and local media outlets including CNNEntrepreneur Magazine, The Late ShowWall Street JournalUSA TodayReutersAssociated Press and Huffington Post.


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