• Transform magazine
  • October 22, 2020

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The Cannabis Industry Needs PR

Cannabis

Neil McLeod, director of strategic communications at The PHA Group discusses what the development of an independent UK cannabis industry, an increasingly likely event, will mean for PR.

The UK’s legal cannabis industry is growing at an exponential rate. Unbeknownst to many, the UK is in fact the largest exporter of medical cannabis in the world, whilst CBD products are used by more than 7.3 million people in the UK each year.

The opportunities being generated by the sector are immense. Yet despite the countless benefits cannabis can bring to the economy, job market and millions of individuals, it continues to have an image problem. From working with several cannabis businesses in recent years, I firmly believe there are plentiful opportunities for PR firms to support this nascent industry, to bolster brand reputation, enhance consumer traction and put pressure on the Government for much-needed change.

Campaigning for progress

The cannabis sector breaks down into several sub-categories, each of which with its own reputational challenges. Medical cannabis is perhaps the most significant of these sectors, yet it still goes largely misunderstood by the general public. Medical cannabis was legalised in the UK on 1st November 2018, but it is still notoriously difficult to get a prescription. Despite the UK being the largest exporter of medical cannabis in the world, it still imports 100% of the cannabis-based medicines prescribed to its own patients due to regulatory restrictions. This, combined with other factors, most notably a lack of training avenues for medical professionals around prescribing, has resulted in a very limited number of prescriptions being issued on the NHS, approximately 150, in England, since medical cannabis was legalised.

For the thousands of patients suffering with the likes of multiple sclerosis and epilepsy, still struggling to access this fully legal drug, this is a tragic, pressing issue. There are several families and individuals across the UK who campaign for medical cannabis access to be improved, by speaking to press about their stories and lobbying Parliament. Some of these high-profile families have been supported through strategic communications at The PHA Group, most notably Hannah Deacon, the mother who successfully campaigned for the first NHS cannabis license for her son, as well as the parents of toddler Charlie Hughes, who are currently seeking Judicial Review against NICE.

Both cases offer strong proof of the power of PR. Through speaking to media and generating coverage of the stories of both families, the complex issue of medical cannabis access has been thrust into the public eye, this in turn putting fresh pressure on the Government to address this through much-needed change. Whilst great progress has been made in recent years, there is still much to be done and the opportunities for PRs to do influential work in the realm of medical cannabis are huge.

Reputation enhancement 

CBD is likely the most established sector of the cannabis industry in the UK. Despite only being part of the nation’s health and wellbeing scene for a short few years, there are now approximately 7.3 million people in the UK using CBD products each year. Already worth an estimated £300 million, the UK CBD industry is predicted to grow at a rapid rate, with experts claiming this figure will more than triple in the next five years.

Despite its impressive growth, the industry has faced its own stumbling blocks. Until this year, CBD had been in a period of regulatory uncertainty and the industry faced understandable criticism when high profile cannabis probes found over half of the most popular CBD oils did not contain the amount of CBD promised on the label. This did nothing to help the already precarious public perception of CBD, meaning firms have had to work extremely hard to heal their reputations and ensure their brands are deemed trustworthy by consumers going forward.

Strategic brand building

Unfortunately, this isn’t a simple exercise. CBD companies must tread carefully in the marketing of their products, with the advertisement of the compound still hugely restricted. However, there are great possibilities within PR. Through case studies and careful product placement, PRs can work carefully with CBD companies to raise awareness of the benefits of their products and solidify their brand image, without risking trouble with the ASA. With CBD brands and manufacturers springing up left right and centre, there are opportunities aplenty for PR firms to lend support, whether that’s from a consumer perspective, across food and drink, beauty or general wellness, or from a business strategy point of view.

A wealth of opportunities

The legal cannabis industry is gaining traction and is definitely one to watch. To diminish dependence on imports and improve patient access, pressure is being placed on the Government to change regulations to allow for the creation of a fully independent medical cannabis industry in the UK. With top medical researchers working to advance this through improved legislation, an independent industry is becoming increasingly likely and when this happens, the prospects for PRs to lend support will be abundant. Alongside this, the CBD sector is only set to grow and in recent years, there has been increasing interest and investment into hemp, a versatile variety of the cannabis plant hailed as the next big thing in sustainability.

The opportunities are there, for entrepreneurs, investors, manufacturers and cultivators alike. PRs are no different – we have an important role to play in this story; to support businesses at all stages of the cannabis supply chain, to spread their message, solidify their brands and rectify their perception amongst the British public.