Mountains with a blue sky in the backgorund and green pine trees in front with a hiking path

Seven Things About My Five Years of Cannabis PR

Five years ago, just after the big solar eclipse of 2017, I launched Canna Communication. It was a giant experiment, a risky endeavor that was nearly one year in planning before launch. 

Honestly, it’s a moderately successful business, and most of that’s on me. I’m not much of a hustler; I don’t grind, I loathe networking and luckily, I don’t need dozens of clients to keep the business moving forward. That being said, I do grind, hustle and do whatever it takes for my clients—but I’m more chill regarding my own business.

Some of Canna Communication’s success is due to timing—the business was created just as Michigan moved to license medical marijuana and took off when recreational was implemented in 2020. I was lucky to be in the right place and ready as cannabis got lit in the Mitten.

As I reflect on the past five years, here are seven insights about being an entrepreneur in cannabis communication. The best points are at the end, so feel free to skip down.

1) People Are REALLY Interested in Cannabis.

I’ve had four career PR positions: American Red Cross, Grand Rapids Art Museum, Mercy Hospital and Grand Rapids Community Foundation. When I told people that I worked for any of these entities, I was met with a “that’s nice” or “what’s that?” but when I left the traditional workspace and started working in weed, people became interested in what I do. However, as much as I loved community philanthropy and art, people tended to glaze over when I started talking about those subjects in the context of my work. 

Cannabis is a totally different topic. People tell me about good and bad experiences, ask about products and share stories about people they know whose aches, pains and cancer journeys have been made better with the plant. Even people who hate weed still like to engage with me.

2) Make Yourself An Expert.

Like many PR people, I spend a lot of time reading news about the cannabis industry, and listening to podcasts, and listservs, thus keeping up on emerging products and trends. I pride myself on my expertise, connections, and knowledge about cannabis, which I believe separates Canna Communication from other PR firms. 

Cannabis is a quirky industry and having inside knowledge about what’s going on makes us more effective with the media and clients. I built my early expertise and knowledge on the Canna Communication website, writing blogs based on questions people were asking me. These blogs, which I posted on the Canna Communication website, helped establish the company through SEO and that web presence helps bring clients to us. 

While I don’t write as frequently for the Canna Communication website as I once did, I research and write blogs for clients on various cannabis topics. With that work, I maintain a base of cannabis knowledge that provides value to my company and clients. 

3) Pay Your Dues.

A few core things anger people in the cannabis industry are interlopers—people who don’t know a thing about weed, don’t love the plant, don’t consume cannabis, are in it just for the money and haven’t paid their dues in advocacy. 

Admittedly, my advocacy began when Michigan decided to license and communities had to opt-in or opt-out of allowing medical cannabis businesses to operate. I started e-mailing Muskegon City Commissioners in late 2016 and 2017, asking them to consider opting in. I attended many City Commission meetings, and in the public comment period, I spoke about the positive aspects of cannabis for people’s health and economic gain. When commissioners would have a negative cannabis comment, I’d research it, find facts and return to the next meeting with a response. In the end, Muskegon opted in for medical marijuana. 

When Prop 1, the initiative to bring recreational cannabis to Michigan, came before the voters, I helped with petitions, distributed yard signs, attended forums, and used the Canna Communication website and social media to promote a yes vote. As a result, the state voters passed the proposal, and the City of Muskegon opted in.

This advocacy work connected me with other activists in cannabis and helped move Michigan out of cannabis prohibition. It also made for fertile ground for a cannabis PR firm.

4) If The Work Doesn’t Make You Happy, Move On.

In year three of Canna Communication’s life, I decided to apply for a Michigan-issued Marijuana Event Organizer license. I thought being able to do temporary marijuana events would be a great addition to the company portfolio. The license fee was about $3000, and the application process was one of my life’s singularity most unpleasant experiences. 

The amount of meddling in the life and background of an applicant is just invasive. 

Shortly after I was approved as an MEO, the state went into COVID lockdown. So I was unable to use the license for a year. I paid the renewal fee, sent more paperwork, and another year of COVID prevented more events. Finally, in the autumn of 2021, I worked with Park Place Provisionary on Halloweed—Muskegon’s first cannabis consumption event. It was a moderate success, and I was miserable. I didn’t enjoy the process, the hours and hours of highly detailed work, the state rules, dealing with all sorts of moving parts from food to music and always making sure people were having fun. 

When we finished that event, I swore I wouldn’t do another. I came close a few times to accepting new event work, but in the end, I let the MEO license expire. 

5) Work With Great Clients.

Two men stand in from of a green house with other people in the background. The building is Pharmhouse Wellness. There is a TV camera in the foreground of the photo.
Casey Kornoelje and the Pharmhouse Pham.

Dang! I’ve had some super good cannabis PR clients over the years and am incredibly proud of the things we did together. 

My first paying client was Greg Maki from Agri-Med—I helped him figure out where he could locate a cannabis business by calling and emailing about 50 municipalities in West Michigan—and it was in the City of Muskegon where he established Park Place Provisionary. I helped them open Park Place as Muskegon’s first medical marijuana store and its first recreational shop again. His partner Tracy Powers and I planned and executed some epic opening events. 

I’m crazy about Pharmhouse Wellness in Grand Rapids and its owner Casey. It’s one of the few locally-owned cannabis businesses in Michigan. Casey has a great backstory, and his parents continue to help him with the business. He’s devoted to the store’s west side neighborhood and does super interesting social equity work.

Public Health-Muskegon County is a favorite, too. I’ve worked with them for three years and we created a website and a set of fact-based campaigns for youth, pregnant women, drivers, workers and harm-reduction messaging.

It’s been fun to write and do PR work with The WellFlower and Scout Cannabis as they grow, open new stores, and create new brands in Michigan. But, again, it’s a local company and that matters to me when I decide who I’ll align with.

My client highlight list is here—all the good ones anyway!

6) Hike The Pacific Crest Trail. 

The second summer Canna Communication was open, business was very slow. I had two clients in the first two years—Cannalex Law and Agri-Med. I was enthusiastically sending proposals and talking with people, but nothing was happening in cannabis PR.

Roberta King, cannabis PR professional poses on the Pacific Crest Trail. She has red curly hair with trekking poles and a gray backpack with Oregon Mountains in the background.
Somewhere on the PCT—don’t ask about my eyes.

Rather than wallow in self-pity, a friend and I hiked the Oregon section of the Pacific Crest Trail for three weeks. It was something we’d talked about for a few years before, and the timing was right to go in the summer of 2018 

It was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, and looking at the photos gives me a lump in my throat. I’d go back in a heartbeat. My goal was to consider Canna Communication and how to make it succeed and imagine the plot of my next book, but all I did was hike, eat and sleep. It was the best three weeks of that summer!

7) Yes. I’m High.

I can’t work while I’m stoned and cannot write high at all, so I’m pretty much straight when I’m working, except when I’m trying to generate ideas—then weed is so helpful. But when I’m not working, I try to be somewhere on the stoned scale. I’m usually not too high because I do a lot of active stuff like cycling, kayaking, running, snowshoeing, and hiking, and don’t want to get hurt.

The last place I want to be is in a news headline about a cannabis-user accident. 

But outside of work, I’ve spent the last five years experiencing all aspects of daily life with some level of cannabis in my system. 

It’s a joyful thing.

post it notes to show the branding process

Branding Brings Connections to Your Work

Think of some of your favorite brands and why you like them. The most successful branding efforts bring connections to you, they speak to your heart, not talk at your head. We humans act according to the way we feel, so if you can make people feel a certain way they’ll stick with you. To make this happen you must understand and embrace your “why.” Why does your company exist? If your why is at the core of your brand it separates you from every other company that does what you do. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

When a brand creates an experience or evokes an emotion repeatedly, over time it builds loyalty and therefore consumer loyalty. If you have a core purpose frame your identity, as opposed to tying your brand solely to the actual product, and you set yourself up for success and longevity. Take for example, the Kenneth Cole brand. Through focused branding, it has been donating a percentage of profits to AIDS research and awareness since 1985, so people feel like they’ve done something good when they spend their hard-earned dollars with Kenneth Cole. They aren’t just selling footwear and handbags. This is a perfect example of a purpose-led brand that ties its purpose to a singular tactic. Bissell is another fine example with its Bissell Pet Foundation. A portion of profits from this corporation go to helping homeless pets. You see branding is not just a logo and template to follow for all advertising. It is looking at what your relevance, coherence and credibility are. Link your brand to a perceived positive impact and you’ve got something that separates you from the rest of the businesses in your community.

a red ribbon to symbolize a brand connection

Emotion inspires action and branding is the key!

This is where amplification comes into play. It is not sufficient to just push out content. You need to amplify your message by using the media, advocacy, influencers, native social media and advertising where you can. Most platforms have very specific rules about cannabis advertising, but it can still be done and being newsworthy and relevant helps with amplification.

Deep down the cannabis consumer wants more than to just buy weed. They can do that almost anywhere these days. Your employees want to do more than just sell weed. The attrition rate is just as high in the cannabis industry as it is in the restaurant industry. So how do you get good people to stay and not jump ship for the highest (pardon the pun) bidder and keep customers coming back regardless of what deals are going on down the street? People want something to identify with, so what resonates with them will sell them. Express what you stand for, so it does some actual good. You gotta live it! The people that work for you need to be inspired by it and that feeling will translate when they interact with your customers.

This is particularly true in cannabis public relations and marketing. Redemption Cannabis in Jackson, Michigan is a perfect example of a cannabis company with a purpose. Ten percent of all revenue goes to those affected by the war on cannabis. These funds are mostly used in cannabis conviction expungement efforts. On a national level, Ocean Cannabis is a brand committed to ending the cannabis plastic problem. By sourcing their packaging from 100% reclaimed and recycled plastic found in oceans, each product purchase recovers the equivalent of fifteen straws or one water bottle worth of recycled plastic. Their goal is to “smoke the ocean clean, one joint at a time.”

a photo of a person ligthing a pre-roll to illustrate branding a cannabis business

Humor goes a long way when you’re trying to connect with a person or group of people too. You know that person that wasn’t that attractive to you at first, but then became more attractive as you got to know them better because they were kind, funny, clever, compassionate, smart, etc? Your brand is no different. Make people laugh—because cannabis consumption is for better health and fun! Humor creates a sense of intimacy before they even walk in the door. From there you can create retention with stellar customer service, ambiance and products. 

What’s Your Plan?

Do you have an actual corporate business purpose statement? Is that statement backed by a solid activation strategy? You planned for your cultivation and/or retail store, but how about your brand. How much went into developing what the consumer recognizes your product as? Noteworthy advice: Transcend the ego of your bottom line, your investors, the pressure of outdoing everyone. Stand for something that speaks to people like they are actual human beings, not just dollars.

Decide your purpose. Mean it. Stand by it. Seek the assistance of marketing and public relations professionals to build your brand. You are good at what you do and we are good at helping you express to consumers why you do it.