A Q&A with Roberta King, writer and buzzmaker at Canna Communications LLC
When Roberta King decided it was time for a career change, she wanted to make sure her next phase involved something unique. The long-time vice president of public relations and marketing at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation ultimately decided the niche market of medical and legal recreational marijuana needed a “premier national and international communications firm.” King recruited fellow marketing and branding veteran Dottie Rhodes and the two officially launched Canna Communications LLC in late August. King spoke with MiBiz regarding the opportunities in the industry, ranging from consulting with startup businesses in the complex marijuana industry to organizing advocacy campaigns.
Why does the marijuana industry need a niche PR firm?
It’s about medicine for people with some pretty serious illnesses. That science, which is up-and-coming science, it’s really interesting and of course the federal government prohibited people from doing any real testing … so everything that was done was done in different countries. I think the American government is slow to accept others’ research. There’s the science. There’s the politics. There’s the history. There’s the people. It was this wonderful jumble of things I was really interested in, and so I came up with the idea (and) basically spent all of my spare time trying to figure out where I might fit.
What do you see as the opportunity for your new company?
Our goal is to be the premier national and international communications firm for the cannabis industry, plain and simple. With Canada being so close to … legalization on July 1, 2018, (there’s) opportunity in Canada. We are very supportive of doing what we can for the legalization movement here, but right now we are focusing on those companies who want to be serving the medical industry. (We can help with) licensing, working with and helping municipalities understand what medical marijuana would look like in their community, and the work around that. Then helping entrepreneurs who want to work in that field with how they would do that.
There’s a lot of controversy in Michigan lately regarding dispensaries having to shut down in December and then apply for licenses through the state. How do you see this playing out?
The problem with shutting down the dispensaries on December 15: It’s not like here’s your license, go ahead and get started. There’s going to be a process. If you’re asking people to put together … a business plan, a financial plan, you’ve gotta be ready. (Dispensaries are) paying upwards of $57,000 for the privilege of operating in the state of Michigan, and you’re going to have to have plans and things to put forth. That’s not going to turn around so then on December 15th you’re going to be open.
What are the issues you see arising?
People need to wrap their heads around the idea that cannabis is medicine for a lot of people. I feel like people can discount that all they want, but for a lot of people it’s the hook they needed to keep them out of seizure activity, to lessen their neurological issues, to help them with pain and PTSD. We always have to keep that in mind. What if some municipality just decided Walgreens is going to shut down? ‘You’re not going to operate in our community and you’re not going to hand out diabetes medicine anymore. There will be no insulin for you. Sorry, we just don’t believe you really need it.’ It’s problematic that they think they can just shut that down or expect people to stockpile when you’re only allowed a certain amount.
How do you plan to use your traditional public relations experience in the emerging and complex world of legal marijuana?
I think public relations is really helpful when it comes to cannabis because it’s about education. It’s always been about education and getting people to understand your point of view, and what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it. That’s why it works out really nicely to be in this realm, because it’s all about education. It’s telling people and persuasion, helping people understand the difference between hemp and marijuana, the difference between CBD and THC, and how they work together, and what is the cannabinoid system in the body.
Given your background in PR and marketing, was it a big leap for you to start this?
Yeah, it was pretty huge. It was huge in that I was walking away from a good job with a nice salary, good coworkers, and a place where I could say, ‘Oh yeah, I work for the Community Foundation.’ Now it’s like, ‘I work in cannabis.’ People are like, ‘Oh, wow.’ But the more you talk to people and tell people, the more people either know somebody or are interested in it, or are users themselves and have been or want to be part of it. There was some hesitation there, and that’s probably part of the due diligence for me.
Given the licensing uncertainty in Michigan with regards to medical marijuana, how do you see the situation playing out for entrepreneurs and municipalities?
Really for entrepreneurs, it’s about finding out where people stand. There are plenty of municipalities that overwhelmingly said, ‘We’re just going to wait and see, because we can opt-in (under state law) at any time.’ The opt outs have opted out, but if you opt-in, you can opt-in at any moment in time. Come next June and all of a sudden the municipality next door is bringing in some tax dollars and they were able to pave a stretch of road — or whatever they decide to do, make an improvement at the school — (then) people will be able to opt in.