More than a year ago, businesses across Illinois began providing safe, legal access to adult-use cannabis, and the cannabis industry continues to experience tremendous growth. On a year-over-year basis, in January statewide sales grew by more than 125% as the legal market continues to mature.  

Culloton + Bauer Luce has had the pleasure to work alongside some of the most talented executives and entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry during this exciting growth phase. Like anything in life, what is worth doing hasn’t come easy for these businesses. The federal government’s classification of cannabis has made doing just about anything in this industry ten, maybe one hundred times harder.  

Ironically, the adversity instituted by the federal government’s standing policy has helped forge a culture of compliance that will likely accelerate the industry’s maturity and economic success in the years ahead. Successfully navigating this complex environment will help the first-movers adapt, react and responsibly enter new markets as the regulatory landscape continues to change rapidly.  

Here are five crisis communication tips from the rollout of the new, intensely regulated, and still highly emotional cannabis industry:  

1. Accept the non-acceptance.

For the adult-use cannabis industry, state legalization in a market is essential, but it by no means guarantees acceptance by the broader public.  Devising a successful public affairs strategy and crafting messages that resonate requires you to think like your opposition. 

Understanding where objections will come from and having a plan to answer those concerns is essential in any issue or crisis campaign.  

2. A good reputation is earned, not given.

A business’ reputation is one of the most important assets they own, and it’s the responsibility of leaders to cultivate, manage and defend this corporate property. How a company introduces itself in a market, to the media, to state regulators or elected officials, local city council members or neighbors will set the tone for their relationship going forward. And as the expression goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression.

Equally important for executives in the cannabis industry is to ensure that their organizations, employees and licensees live up to the expectations they’ve set and reflect the culture of compliance they’ve established. An organization’s everyday policies, procedures and practices will ultimately define its reputation.  

3. Honest, transparent and educational communication is crucial.

 In 1992, President Clinton famously had to invoke the “I didn’t inhale” defense because such an admission would have been almost disqualifying for the presidency. Over the past three decades, societal attitudes have changed rapidly, leading to updated regulations, amended laws and the creation of new commercial markets. But any major change or shift results in unanswered questions or concerns that can run the gambit of legitimate or border on the absurd.

Well-run issue campaigns need to avoid using evasive answers or providing disingenuous information to difficult questions. That strategy may work for the short-term, but it leads to long-term consequences that can be crippling.  

Nothing can ever replace a company or cause providing transparent communication that informs as it persuades and advocates for your position.  

4. Assemble a disciplined communications team.

It is crucial to have the right team assembled so you can quickly and correctly respond in an emotionally charged and rapidly moving environment. Bringing together individuals with the right mix of backgrounds, experiences and perspectives will ensure you respond appropriately as your situation, issue campaign or full-fledged crisis unfolds.  

An essential component of navigating a challenging environment is to have the right messages told by the right people at the right time. An experienced and disciplined communications team, informed by subject matter experts, will help ensure you don’t over- or under-react at critical moments.   

5. All politics is local.

Business leaders in any industry should always remember the public affairs axiom attributed to Speaker Tip O’Neill, “All politics is local.” Regardless of your industry, you have to think like a local elected official. What concerns or questions will neighbors have? Who are the key influencers in the area? What other issues are officials dealing with as they consider your issue?

Do your homework and come to the table with solutions and a locally-informed perspective.


This article was written by Patrick Skarr. With a knack for analysis, research and creative positioning of issues, Patrick has been in the trenches of public policy and campaigns for 15 years.