Cannabis companies get mixed public relations reception

With marijuana legalization looming in Canada, issues surrounding the marketing of cannabis firms have divided players in the public relations industry.

While some PR agencies are eager to take on the challenge of marketing newly legalized cannabis companies, others are shying away from the emerging sector, citing a clash of values or a reluctance to upset current clientele.

Among the latter is Magnolia Marketing Communications, an agency on West Georgia Street that employs about 10 people and has built a reputation that punches above its staffing weight.

“Because we have built some anchor clients that trust us and trust our credibility out there, we are able to be more value-driven and decide what kind of work we take on,” said general manager Kristina Lee. “We are a specialist’s public relations firm; we aren’t generalists. We do have clients we serve specifically like high tech, technology manufacturing and business-to-business, and we have the ability to say ‘no’ to clients even as a very small shop.”

The “small shop” sensibility has prompted the agency to avoid the cannabis industry, despite the potential for a hefty profit.

“We are a boutique firm, and we work with a lot of clients who reflect and share similar values. Yes, there may be a revenue opportunity because of legalization, but we’ve spoken to our teams and a lot of us feel that it might reflect negatively with our other clients.”

Even with marijuana becoming more accepted on a countrywide scale, Lee said the agency is unlikely to change its stance due to the effect new relationships might have on existing clients.

“I think there are a lot of unknowns about the space still.… We just don’t have the appropriate knowledge in the sector. That could change, but until it does, I don’t think it is right for us.”

Other public relations companies are keen to embrace the opportunity presented by legalized recreational marijuana.

“There are a lot of emerging companies out there,” said David Brodie, senior vice-president and general manager of Citizen Relations. “In the last 18 months, I would say there hasn’t been a month that has gone by where we haven’t been approached by at least one or two potential clients in the sector.”

Brodie, who leads a team of roughly 22 people, said the company is happy to venture into relatively uncharted PR territory.

“It is something as an agency you have to handle on a case-by-case basis and figure out what makes sense for your team and what aligns with your values and who you are comfortable moving forward with.”

Amanda Bates, vice-president of Curve Communications, has had cannabis firms among her clients for a number of years – typically growers and suppliers with the budget to acquire assistance in brand building.

“We never made decisions based on our beliefs of the industry; it was more to do with the people involved and whether they were doing things for the right reasons,” Bates said. “The way we approach most of our clients is that obviously we would only represent a client that we fully believe in, so we always have to make sure that they are following best practices and there is nothing dodgy going on.”

Bates said her biggest challenge has not been the screening or acquisition of clients, but the legal restrictions on promotion of cannabis brands.

“You have to be very creative with your wording, and you can say certain things and you can’t say other things. We do a lot of Facebook [Nasdaq:FB] advertising for our clients, and of course Facebook shuts it down since they aren’t based up here.”