5 steps to create a strong communications plan in the rapidly-changing CBD industry
In the CBD industry’s ever-changing environment, having a strong communications plan should be high on your company’s priority list. At any time, government action can rattle your customers, retail partners and even your employees into questioning the safety of your product. Being prepared to respond authoritatively will help protect your brand’s integrity.
On November 25, 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued warning letters to 15 companies for illegally selling products containing cannabidiol (CBD) in ways that violate the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act). The FDA has previously sent warning letters to other companies illegally selling CBD products in interstate commerce that claimed to prevent, diagnose, mitigate, treat or cure serious diseases, such as cancer, or otherwise violated the FD&C Act. Some of these products were in further violation because CBD was added to food, and some of the products were also marketed as dietary supplements. Under the FD&C Act, it is illegal to introduce into interstate commerce any human or animal food to which certain drug ingredients, such as CBD, have been added.
The FDA also just published a revised “consumer update” stating that CBD can cause significant side effects including potential liver injury, interactions with other drugs, drowsiness, diarrhea, and changes in mood. Citing a lack of scientific evidence showing that CBD is safe in food, the FDA also stated that it cannot conclude that CBD is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) for human or animals to consume in food or drinks.
In its update, the FDA’s Principal Deputy Commissioner Amy Abernethy, M.D., Ph.D. stated, “Aside from one prescription drug approved to treat two pediatric epilepsy disorders, these products have not been approved by the FDA and we want to be clear that a number of questions remain regarding CBD’s safety – including reports of products containing contaminants, such as pesticides and heavy metals – and there are real risks that need to be considered. We recognize the significant public interest in CBD and we must work together with stakeholders and industry to fill in the knowledge gaps about the science, safety and quality of many of these products.”
The FDA plans to provide an update on its approach to regulating CBD products in the coming weeks.
HOW SHOULD YOUR COMPANY RESPOND?
The recent FDA announcement calls for a public response to acknowledge the situation and reassure your customers. Ignoring developments like this will only cause your company to appear out-of-touch, or worse, intentionally deceptive.
Transparency is required to build and maintain trust and to avoid confusion. Your website, social media, direct mail and email communications should feature a clear response to let customers know company leadership is aware of the situation and is taking it seriously.
The list of suggestions below is not exhaustive and will change as more CBD information and regulations occur, but you can use it as a starting point to develop your CBD messaging.
STEP 1: COMPLIANCE COMMUNICATION
Highlight the ways your company is in compliance with the rules of your state, and how you are trying to be in compliance with changing federal rules. If you do not sell your product outside of your state, point that out and explain that it’s because you are waiting for federal rules in order to operate completely within the legal boundaries, once they are outlined. If you offer your product via online sales, explain that it is meant to be a convenience service for in-state customers.
STEP 2: CLEAR USAGE GUIDELINES
Remind customers about how your product is intended to be used and who it is for (not vulnerable populations like children or pregnant or nursing mothers). DO NOT make any claims that your product can prevent, diagnose, mitigate, treat or cure serious diseases.
STEP 3: HIGHLIGHT SAFETY PROCESSES
Highlight the manufacturing practices your company uses to ensure your products do not contain any contaminants, such as pesticides or heavy metals, and detail the testing your company does for quality control. DO NOT make specific safety claims but discuss how your manufacturing process is adhering to the current known safety practices.
STEP 4: HEMP EXPLANATION
If the CBD in your product is derived from hemp, rather than marijuana, highlight that fact and note that hemp and its derivatives are no longer part of the Controlled Substances Act. The 2018 Farm Bill, signed into law by President Donald Trump, removed hemp — defined as cannabis and cannabis derivatives with very low concentrations (no more than 0.3% on a dry weight basis) of THC — from the definition of marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act.
STEP 5: ENCOURAGE CONSULTATION
Encourage customers with concerns or who are taking supplements or prescribed medications to talk with their doctor or pharmacist about proper dosage and medical supervision, and to their veterinarian if your product is made for pets. While it is possible your customer may be advised to avoid using CBD until FDA approval occurs, you want those who use your products to be comfortable doing so. Your company is not a substitute for their trusted health caregivers, and it’s important to respect your customers’ desire to choose the products they use responsibly.
Your website, social media accounts and direct mail and email messaging to customers should be clear, consistent, accurate and timely. You should also share this messaging with internal audiences so that your employees, board members, vendors and other stakeholders are aware of your stance.
If you receive calls or online chats from consumers, make sure the scripts are updated and align with all other communications.
The goal is to position your company as a trusted source of information. This will require assigning a point person to monitor developments like statements from the FDA, and a process for quickly developing a response and gaining approval for public and internal sharing. You should also have a media trained company spokesperson available at all times to respond to media inquiries or to proactively hold a news conference if need be.
If you do not have the resources on staff for managing crisis communications, it is highly advisable you retain the services of a reliable PR contractor to be ready at a moment’s notice to handle this important task for your company.