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PR tips for cannabis companiesThe cannabis industry is smoking hot. To date, 33 states have legalized cannabis for medical use and 10 for recreational use. Cannabis start-ups are spreading like weeds. (Ok, that’s enough with the puns!) Venture capital is jumping into the sector and start-ups are racing to build brand recognition and go mainstream. Well-established publicly-traded companies have invested in cannabis start-ups.

The start-ups face substantial barriers to establishing and growing brand awareness. The federal government still considers cannabis an illegal drug, much like heroin. Media outlets either severely curtail or completely prohibit cannabis advertising. Google and Facebook won’t touch cannabis ads. If other media venues consider the ads at all, regulations are oppressive.

Organic social media promotions have met difficulties. Marijuana companies have posted photos of their products on Instagram, but the network doesn’t let cannabis companies reveal their contact information, including addresses, Bloomberg reports. Companies complain that Instagram has shut down their accounts without notice or explanation.

Given the many budding marijuana firms, (couldn’t resist another pun) observers predict the industry will suffer a shake out at some point. In addition, the marijuana crop is becoming a commodity with little differentiation between companies. Strong brand awareness and differentiation can enable firms to stand out from the many emerging competitors. With advertising and social media options severely curtailed, PR offers the best strategy.

Stand Out in the Field with Earned Media

Experts in communications offer these recommendations for PR agencies and staff working in the cannabis industry.

Understand the industry and the cannabis culture. A new crop of PR firms claiming to specialize in cannabis has emerged. Cannabis companies will likely seek PR pros who are passionate about the culture and who understand the business and its varied and changing regulations, both federal and state.

Emphasize education. The public often associates marijuana with 1960s hippies and drug addiction. Doctors now prescribe the drug for multiple medical conditions, and pharmaceutical firms continue to research potential benefits. It’s important for PR pros in the space to stay current with the latest research. “PR professionals have an opportunity to share over-arching industry-positive messages that help to celebrate science, embrace technology and elevate innovation,” writes SHUK Communications founder Sarah Cichy.

Identify your customers, their problems and main questions, and select the problems your company can solve. Study those problems, and the impact each has on customers. Write out the answers. “This helps you flesh out your thinking in a way that elevates the impact, which is what reporters and editors want,” says PR expert Jake Miller. “These answers will be the backbone of your media relations tactics.”

Identify publications your audience reads. You might consider consumer publications such as High Times, traditional outlets like USA Today, and B2B outlets like Cannabis Business Times and Marijuana Venture, Miller says. Stories with a business slant can be pitched to business editors. Medical or science editors may entertain pitches on research or medical applications. Travel editors may include mentions of destinations where recreational marijuana is legal.

Consider sponsored content. Sponsored content may offer a way to evade advertising regulations if the article does not directly promote the product.

Create an original logo. Logos of cannabis companies suffer from visual monotony: marijuana leaves, dated 1960s references, and green crosses (a pharmaceutical reference). “When you employ such a hyper-utilized cliché for your brand, all it does is reiterate the category, not the brand,” observes Kelly Gutt at LSB. Differentiate the brand by avoiding clichés. It’s not necessary to include the product in the logo.

Consider influencer marketing. Influencer marketing can help PR pros circumvent social media restrictions. It’s important to work with an influencer with a following that resembles your target market’s characteristics. “It’s not as obvious or as blatant as just going after a ‘mainstream’ cannabis influencer,” Jasmine Pickel, vice president of social media for North 6th Agency, told Cannabis Business Times.

These PR recommendations can also apply to many other emerging industries and product categories.

Bottom Line: Public relations offers the cannabis industry a solution to its unique branding and product promotion challenges. Cannabis companies need to grow brand awareness to achieve viable long-term success. However, they have limited advertising options. PR offers a solution.