Eighty years of Prohibition will do a number on your reputation.

For proof of this, look no further than the growing body of public relations professionals catering specifically to pioneers of the cannabis industry.

Seeking to gain a better understanding of this trailblazing line of work, Civilized picked the brains of five of the top cannabis PR specialists in the United States.

In the Q&A that follows, the women behind some of the top cannabis PR firms touch on the triumphs and tribulations of combatting a near-century-old stigma.

Carol Ruiz, Higher Ground 

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Carol Ruiz is the Principal of Higher Ground, a California-based full service PR and marketing agency targeting “the next generation of cannabis.”

How did you get your start in cannabis public relations?

My partner, Robert O’Shaughnessy, and I founded Higher Ground in April of 2015. We had worked together for a couple years at another agency that I own called NewGround PR & Marketing, and in 2014 we were approached by a cannabis company to design a website. We are both passionate about legalization and understand the industry quite well, so we jumped at the chance to do some really creative and meaningful work.

After designing the website, we were hired to do PR and social media for the company and fell in love with the work. We decided to form an agency to focus solely on the cannabis industry, and that’s how Higher Ground was born. At Higher Ground, our goal is to build positive awareness for our clients with the foundation of a belief in freedom, entrepreneurialism, and fun. Of course, we also believe in measurement, results, and accountability.

What are the best/most rewarding and worst/most challenging parts of your job?

One of the most rewarding parts of my job is discovering my clients’ stories. PR is all about storytelling and I’m a storyteller at heart, with a degree in film and television production and a background in documentary filmmaking. I love to find ways to get to the heart of my clients’ stories and tell them in a way that feels authentic and resonates with the press and public. There are endless stories to tell in the cannabis space and it’s been an amazing experience to meet and work with some of the pioneers and new entrepreneurs in our industry and help them get their stories told to the larger world, build their reputations, and grow their businesses.

I think the most challenging part of my job is that while cannabis has a long human history, as an industry it is rather nascent and is going through growing pains as legalization spreads across the country. It sometimes can feel like the Wild Wild West. Good PR helps to not only reign in some of that wildness, but it also helps educate our clients and gets them on a more disciplined path of how they should presenting themselves to a newer, different, and increasingly sophisticated audience.

What would you say is the greatest misconception about your job?

A lot of people think that PR is a sleazy profession. I don’t think I can count the times I’ve heard potential clients tell me that they are dubious about hiring a PR firm because they’ve had terrible experiences with agencies that promised the moon, were paid a lot, yet got few results for them. However, I’m always up for a good challenge and it feels great to dispel that notion by working hard and delivering results that help our clients. At the get-go we are always transparent about what we think will work and won’t work. There are never any surprises. 

How often do you find yourself having to combat cannabis stereotypes as part of your job? How important is this to what you do?

Surprisingly, the “stoner” stereotype is fading pretty quickly, and as medical cannabis gains credibility with the public, it’s easier to convince mainstream press to write about the industry. I believe that will increase exponentially following California’s legalization of recreational cannabis and with the huge number of people who’ve never tried cannabis understanding its benefits for the first time and using it recreationally. Articles about the “best wines to try” or the “best IPAs of the year” are commonplace. Why should that be any different than the best strains? As legalization becomes the norm, these “best of strains” articles will follow.

Do you see the field of cannabis public relations continuing to grow? If so, why and how?

I’m seeing more and more PR firms starting to take on cannabis clients – ones that, up until now, were wary of entering the field. That will increase as the “stoner” stereotype fades and the huge number of start-up cannabis companies mature and understand that they need public relations, marketing, and social media to differentiate themselves from the competition and to build and protect their brands.

Cynthia Salarizadeh, Salar Media Group 

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Cynthia Salarizadeh is the Founder and CEO of Salar Media Group, a California-based full service cannabis and hemp focused public relations and marketing firm. 

How did you get your start in cannabis public relations?

I decided to finish college a little late in life, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2014 just as cannabis legalized fully in Colorado and the trend kicked off. [At the time], I was being groomed for something specific with the State Department under the DOD, but then I was offered a position with a startup out of Chicago (CannaFundr).

I knew I could take a couple years to apply my skill-set to help reverse the stigma and negative perception of cannabis and to help the medical cannabis [movement]. Two things fueled this desire: one being that my brother was a victim of the opiate [crisis], and the other being my knowledge that industrial hemp is one of the most realistic applications to reverse the damage of fossil fuels and provide for a sustainable future.

What are the best/most rewarding and worst/most challenging parts of your job?

The worst and most challenging areas are the difficulties I am up against in reversing the perception of the plant after the damage done psychologically by ‘Reefer Madness.’ People have been brainwashed, and we are up against big special interests in Big Oil and Big Pharma.

In addition, I originally found the lack of structure and professionalism to be a unique landscape from what I was accustomed to. In PR, companies and operators had no idea what a press release even was, and weren’t comfortable spending the dollar amounts they require. When I first started out, newswires were not even allowing cannabis brands or topics. Mainstream news was not covering it. It was a whole new world and we had to build everything from the ground up.

The most rewarding has been helping veterans and cancer patients get their stories out. I assisted in helping Florida pass their medical laws after failing the first time. With it, it brought the medicine necessary to a lot of dear friends. Assisting in the development of an entire infrastructure for what will become one of the world’s largest industries is an amazing feeling - especially when you can sit back and watch your work make a difference.

What would you say is the greatest misconception about your job?

That we are all stoners and the industry is not real. As I come from a corporate background, those I once worked with and was respected by [disapproved] of my being in an industry that is federally illegal. For for those of us who risked potentially never being accepted back into the established industries that run the world, these misconceptions were scary.

In addition, everyone now thinks that if you are in cannabis, you are making money; I make a quarter of what I am worth elsewhere.  The money at this time is in cultivation or dispensing, not PR, journalism, marketing, education, etc. We are here to help. The real opportunists are just now showing up. They did not risk anything. They waited until we - and those doing it decades before us - did the dirty work. Anyone who entered between 2012-2014 truly risked not being able to get regular positions if this industry did not work out.

How often do you find yourself having to combat cannabis stereotypes as part of your job? How important is this to what you do?

I am in PR - so, every day. And this was the challenge I came to this industry [to tackle]. It was the most important part of the puzzle to advance legislation and investment, so it was the most important to me.

Do you see the field of cannabis public relations continuing to grow? If so, why and how?

Absolutely. Now, we have to bring the ball into the end-zone for federal legalization here in the States. This requires the finest companies being highlighted to continue the flow of investment, the new research on the medical side to be front and center, and the data being collected to make headlines. This means we need to continue rallying the best and brightest in PR to help shape the image for a positive perception once and for all. In the end, it was the 'Reefer Madness' PR campaign that caused this mess and moved us into Prohibition. So, it stands to reason that it is a PR campaign that will bring cannabis out of Prohibition and back into the light where it has always belonged.

Olivia Mannix, CannaBrand 
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Olivia Mannix is the Founder of CannaBrand, a full-service cannabis marketing agency specializing in services specific to public relations for cannabis companies.

How did you get your start in cannabis public relations?

Cannabrand was brought to market through public relations. We had zero funding, we were starting in a company in a space which was uncharted, and we were only 23 years old. We created a platform, a cannabis marketing agency, which garnered a plethora of media attention.

I started the agency because I wanted to be able to “rebrand” cannabis and educate the public and influence policy, and it has really come a long want since 2014. 

What are the best/most rewarding and worst/most challenging parts of your job?

My mission has been to educate the public and policy. It’s rewarding to help people and see cannabis legalize right before my eyes and how far we have come.

What would you say is the greatest misconception about your job?

Starting cannabis PR in 2014 when adult use became legal, many journalists asked taboo questions.

I have helped educate journalists about all the different aspects of cannabis.

How often do you find yourself having to combat cannabis stereotypes as part of your job? How important is this to what you do?

Many journalists are always trying to make sensationalized, pun-filled stories about cannabis, but I’m the first one to tell them that cannabis is a medicine.

Jennifer Price, Potnt

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Jennifer Price is the Founder and Director of Business Development for Potnt, a North Carolina-based public relations and integrated marketing communications agency specializing in cannabis and hemp markets. 

How did you get your start in cannabis public relations?

I have been working in the PR and marketing industry for over 23 years, with sole focus on the cannabis and hemp space for the past three.

I became involved in cannabis PR when my dear friend, Chris Hempel, asked me to help her and her husband, Hugh, with their company, Strainz.  The Hempels created the company after having to extract their own CBD for their identical twin daughters, who were born with an extremely rare and fatal disease, Niemann-Pick Disease Type C. The girls have “Childhood Alzheimer’s” and suffer from daily seizures. The Hempels saw a need in their community and they worked hard to help provide for families like their own. 

What are the best/most rewarding and worst/most challenging parts of your job?

The most rewarding moments are when I have the opportunity to connect with patients of all different ages, genders, races, and religions, who trust me with their personal journeys. Hearing about the diverse paths that brought them to cannabis and realizing that I am doing my small part to carry this conversation and this industry forward in a responsible and respectful way is what keeps me going.

There are many challenges in the cannabis industry; one of the biggest is working daily to evolve perception and move the industry to a normalized place in mainstream America. In addition to raising awareness, recognition, sales, and brand loyalty, we must take extreme care to become intimately aware of the local and state laws in each jurisdiction in which a client is operating. What may be legal in Washington State could be absolutely illegal in Colorado. One misstep could cost a client their licensing.

What would you say is the greatest misconception about your job?

Many people still carry around the idea that cannabis is a "street drug” used only for recreation. Most are completely unaware of the differences between CBD and THC. I really enjoy taking the time to explain this to anyone who expresses interest in learning. Because PR isn’t very well understood in general, it becomes slightly complicated when you tell someone that you practice PR in the cannabis space. I always enjoy the opportunity to educate.  

How often do you find yourself having to combat cannabis stereotypes as part of your job? How important is this to what you do?

I don’t often come across cannabis prejudice in my actual job, as I am working with seasoned professionals who are most often recognized as pioneers in the industry. The media, even mainstream, has come to a place where, for the most part, they recognize the benefits and the demand by consumers for legal cannabis consumption.

Do you see the field of cannabis public relations continuing to grow? If so, why and how?

Absolutely! I believe that 2018 will see a tremendous jump in brands looking to promote their products and services. There aren’t many PR professionals who are deeply entrenched in the cannabis space, while having vast experience in parallel industries like technology and finance. This is an industry that is predicted to grow to roughly $14.5 billion this year.

Many traditional PR companies have been skittish to enter an industry that is still federally illegal. As far as I can tell, 2018 will be ripe with opportunity in the PR cannabis space.

Shawna Seldon McGregor, The Rosen Group 

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Shawna Seldon McGregor is the Senior Vice President of The Rosen Group, a New York-based full-service communications firm that expanded its services into Denver when Colorado voted in favor of recreational cannabis use. 

How did you get your start in cannabis public relations?

I opened the Denver office of The Rosen Group in 2012, just as voters were overwhelmingly approving adult-use cannabis in Colorado and Oregon. Through my work in Colorado and the west as well as TRG’s home base in the east, I began working with leaders in the nascent cannabis industry and recognized an overwhelming need for cannabis brands to communicate with the media as well as other important target audiences. 

What are the best/most rewarding and worst/most challenging parts of your job?

The most rewarding part of representing cannabis entities is knowing that we are truly breaking down stereotypes that have been perpetuated through opposition forces and “Reefer Madness.” Cannabis communication experts are providing real and much needed education. 

The most challenging part of the job is that we have to correct a century of misinformation. It is important to be aware that for every industry profit that cannabis cuts into, we have a sector fighting us to keep their market share. This includes efforts that originate from pharmaceutical, alcohol, tobacco, the prison-industrial complex, and more. We can’t be complacent. We may have won a battle, but the information war is just beginning.

What would you say is the greatest misconception about your job?

The greatest misconception about my job is that it is just writing press releases. We spend 80 percent of our time on thought leadership initiatives such as events, social media efforts, and editorial calendars and custom content. 

How often do you find yourself having to combat cannabis stereotypes as part of your job? How important is this to what you do?

Every single day we combat stereotypes, and it is incredibly important to do this. I have so much respect for the core cannabis consumer, but the industry is so much more than its core.

Cannabis products are emerging as the next white wine, and the alternative to addictive pharmaceuticals and opioids. Technology and science behind the products is growing exponentially, not just every year, but every single day.

The industry is not just about a lovely live resin or budder. It is also about a micro-dose edible or sublingual or an incredibly effective topical salve. Cannabis executives are serious about breaking down stereotypes, so that anyone 21 and up can feel comfortable trying a safe and effective cannabis product.  

Do you see the field of cannabis public relations continuing to grow? If so, why and how?

There is no question that the field of cannabis public relations will continue to grow. Adult-use cannabis as we know it today has been in existence for less than five years.

Regulations and legislation will continue to need to be worked out on the state level for decades to come, and for the most part, we haven’t even gotten to the national and international stage. Education on how to consume is imperative. Cannabis can soothe what ails, but it can also be incredibly uncomfortable experience if too much is consumed.

A cannabis company must be prepared to communicate with its consumers, business peers, regulators, investors and more. Having a knowledgeable communications pro is the first step in successfully communicating with target audiences.