For an industry that has been hiding in the shadows for the better part of the past century, it’s no surprise cannabis operators have mixed feelings about broadcasting their brands and touting their products for the world to see. Even today, with medical cannabis legal in thirty-six states, advertising products on traditional media platforms including TV, newspapers, and radio is verboten. Meanwhile, Budweiser has splashed $470 million on Super Bowl ads alone over the years.
Public relations pro Rosie Mattio is trying to flip that script one brand at a time. As the founder and chief executive at Mattio Communications, she is one of the most prolific and successful cannabis PR and marketing professionals in the industry. Since legalization took hold in the United States, she’s made a mission of inserting weed into the mainstream conversation in media outlets from coast to coast, pushing the envelope wherever and whenever she can.
After being a one-woman show for many years, Mattio hired her first employee in 2018. Since then, she has hired another thirty and is looking for more.
Mattio expects 2021 to be a breakout year for her agency. That’s saying something, considering she already represents some of the biggest names in the industry: TerrAscend, Curaleaf, Greenlane Holdings, Headset, and Ascend Wellness Holdings are among Mattio Communications’ clients.
People who operate in the cannabis space often talk about the grind—and not just when they’re rolling joints. The grind is the amount of hard work, perseverance, and determination required to build a successful business in a hyper-competitive industry. Suffice to say Mattio is a grinder.
“For me, it’s really about networking and my reputation,” she said. “If you are good at what you do and you can stand behind the work you do and you work with integrity, then to me the world is your oyster. So how did we grow? Well, I’ve always been a very hard worker, and I’ve always delivered on what I said I was going to do, and we’ve hired that way as well. So, my whole business has been built on referrals.”
While the cannabis industry on the whole was in limbo in 2019—with investment capital drying up and Canada’s weed stocks in free fall—Mattio was busy shifting into a higher gear, expanding her client base and making plans for a big 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has put many aspects of the U.S. economy on hold but cannabis is not one of them, and Mattio’s client base grew from thirty to fifty-five entities between 2019 and 2020. In the same time frame, the agency’s revenues grew 120 percent. The 800-pound gorillas on the agency’s roster give it a certain credibility and a growing balance sheet, but Mattio and her team also enjoy working with startups and small companies, some of which she hopes will become big national brands themselves.
“Seeing these large companies that have money to expand so rapidly—I think Curaleaf is in eighteen states now; maybe even more—and seeing these big retailers become national, that’s really cool,” she said. “But on the other side, really watching a brand being built with their founders and seeing that passion, you’re seeing some of these small brands and what it takes to build themselves up, brick by brick. I think it’s great to watch both. We have a big mix of clients, and when I get new business calls they say ‘we’re a startup’ and I say ‘everyone was a startup when we started with them, and we’ve grown with them.’ So that’s exciting.”
As her clients have grown in size and type, so have Mattio Communications’ services. When she started the company in 2014, Rosie Mattio’s specialty was media relations, but now her agency offers everything from search engine and influencer marketing to social media management and investor relations. Headquartered in Manhattan, the company has grown enough in the past few years to open branches in Los Angeles and Toronto as well.
When she looks forward to 2021, Mattio sees a big year for cannabis on the national and international stages. She’s branching out beyond cannabis, too, and recently signed her first client in the psychedelics realm. Cybin Corp, a mushroom life sciences company in Canada, is developing psychedelic and nutraceutical products.
Mattio is pitching more stories abroad, in markets from South America to Europe and Australia, but for now her focus is on the U.S. and the growing markets on the East Coast. “All signs are pointing to more states legalizing,” she said. “It’s such a nascent industry, and I believe the next year will be really exciting, with a lot of these companies that have survived COVID-19 and have come out stronger. We’re really on this upswing, and there’s a lot of exuberance in the market and among my clients. Everybody’s really planning for 2021 to be a big year, so I’m really hopeful and excited about what’s to come. You know, the wind is at our back right now.”
Mattio grew up in the Bronx borough of New York City with a palpable moxie built right into her DNA. Her thick New York accent and intense, energetic conversation style makes an immediate impression; her intellect and insights leave a more lasting image. In short, she’s just what the doctor ordered in a public relations specialist.
Growing up in a city that embodies the most competitive business environment in the world, it’s perhaps not coincidence a passion for her career was instilled in Mattio at an early age. “I remember walking with my father in eighth or ninth grade and he said, ‘You should work in PR, because you’re a communicator.’ I didn’t know what that was, but in high school I interned at a PR firm. I just had the bug.”
She chose to attend Boston University because of its public relations program and graduated with a degree in PR and “image management”—a skill that would prove invaluable later in an industry where both the operators and products need a steady hand and regular grooming.
“I didn’t even stay for that last week of everybody hanging out [before graduation],” she said. “I finished my finals, went right to New York, and started working at a big agency called Rubenstein Associates. I was ready to start my career.”
A large corporate communications agency, Rubenstein Associates focused on media relations. “When I started, I didn’t even learn about PR strategy,” she said. “All I learned how to do was pitch stories and understand how to work an angle, how to create an angle.” Within her first year, as a 21-year-old, the vice president of media relations left for another firm and Mattio was offered the job. Her career was off to a fast and furious start when a lifestyle agency, Alison Brod Marketing and Communications, came calling. There, she learned a new skill set and gained expertise in market segments from beauty and lifestyle to specialty foods. Again, it didn’t take her long to make an impression, and when she landed a big client, Popcorn Indiana—located in, of all places, Popcorn, Indiana—she soon placed them on the Today show and in O, the Oprah Magazine. Voila, her new expertise was specialty foods with a minor in popcorn.
Buoyed by her early success, Mattio started her first consulting agency when she moved to Chicago with her fiancé in 2005. She focused on technology PR and specialty foods, and over the next eight years she balanced her career with starting a family and raising four daughters. When her husband took a job working for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in Seattle in 2013, the cannabis industry was bubbling up. Mattio was approached about crowdfunding a cannabis cookbook.
“Seattle had just gone to [adult] use, and I was driving my kids to school and went by a big dispensary, and there were lines out the door,” she said. “You would go to dinner parties, and you started to see people with vape pens and edibles. It had not been part of my life, but I saw it was part of the culture in Seattle.”
By the time the cookbook debuted, Mattio had laid the groundwork for a national publicity campaign. Everyone from The New York Times to Fast Company was clamoring for an exclusive. After hitting a grand slam in her first cannabis plate appearance, Mattio decided weed might be a good game plan moving forward because the West Coast cannabis industry was about to explode. “A lightbulb went off in my head, and I thought I could bring my mainstream background into cannabis,” she said. “So, I dove into the field.”
When she started networking at cannabis and technology events around town, she met and clicked with several of the Leafly founders, who were in the process of starting a new data analytics firm called Headset. “We met and hit it off and I became their agency rep in 2015, and the rest is history,” she said. “I started traveling around with Headset and doing different things in the space and by the end of 2015 I had three or four clients, all cannabis. By end of 2016 I had eight or nine clients. By 2018 I was managing twelve clients all by myself.”
After working with Headset for a period, Mattio was able to glean a deeper understanding of the industry and its product trends through the data and analytics the company collects and reports. Like any other media relations guru, she has a knack for working with reporters and editors. She understood not only what it takes to pitch a story, but also how to chum the water with a few enticing angles based on Headset’s new data and research.
“We were privy to the data because we worked with Headset and were looking at it really early on,” she explained. “So instead of us saying, ‘Wow, this company launched a great cannabis beverage,’ we took the approach beverages are growing at this percent or more people are choosing to be sober or more people are not wanting to smoke. So, we just look at the research and pitch stories that are really rooted in data. That way, we are able to tell a more holistic story.”
Another key to her success in cannabis has been her background in specialty foods, from which she gained a deep understanding about the way mainstream publications select stories and shape their business coverage. Likewise, she realized the relationships she built over the past fifteen years would pay off when she approached reporters and editors who trusted her instincts about trends in culture and lifestyle.
“A really exciting part of this has been getting the first stories that have ever been written about cannabis in mainstream publications,” she said. “We got the first stories placed in Vogue and in Oprah. Canndescent was a luxury product, so we pitched the luxury editors and they wrote the story. Same thing with Molly Sims from Oprah. She was writing about food and culture and lifestyle, and I said, ‘you have to come see Canndescent and you need to understand this is not your mama’s cannabis. There is beautiful packaging here.’ We probably placed 100 stories in Bloomberg over the past six years. In other industries, that’s unheard of to be able to bring brand new stuff to reporters. So that was completely gratifying.”
“If you are good at what you do and you can stand behind the work you do and you work with integrity, then to me the world is your oyster.”
Although she has been successful over the years, in building her own business and helping her clients do the same, Mattio acknowledges the challenges and pitfalls inherent in doing anything cannabis-related. Like that time her client wanted to sell some candy.
“We put together an entire campaign around a new gummy product and we were trying to go to market with it in Washington, but the state said you cannot market gummies anymore,” she said. “Think about a whole year of product and marketing, development, and then you start going to manufacturing and then, ‘No, you can’t have candy.’ After you’ve invested all that time and resources!”
By the time Mattio moved back to New York in 2017, she had decided to start building and scaling her company to keep up with the dramatic growth in the cannabis industry, which was fast taking root across the U.S. She wasn’t quite sure what to expect on the East Coast, though, because of cultural attitudes about cannabis.
Even after Mattio moved to Seattle, she said, her husband would question how much she talked about cannabis at dinner parties or posted about weed on Facebook. “He used to say, ‘Maybe you don’t want to be talking about your mom or posting so much about me,’” she said. “And then in 2017, when he was interviewing in New York, he would go into meetings and say ‘My wife is the smartest woman you’ll ever meet. She has a cannabis company.’ How quickly some of the perception has changed from being like a fringe stoner industry to being a really viable profession! If you don’t have a cannabis person in your life, who are you even, right? So, that’s been a big change.”
Likewise, with the passage of the federal farm bill in 2018, CBD has become a mainstream sensation across the U.S. and helped normalize cannabis in part by creating and a slew of new medicinal and beauty products for a whole new group of consumers.
“More of America is talking about cannabis through the CBD lens now,” Mattio said, “because that is a product you’re able to market nationally; you can ship CBD drops and tinctures. People are starting to see it as the new avocado toast.”
The de-stigmatization of cannabis in both the media and the business world has opened more opportunities for professionals in other fields to make the leap. Once New York legalizes cannabis for recreational use—likely in the next year or two—the area instantly will become the biggest market in the U.S. Mattio will be well-positioned to expand her agency even further.
“As a PR and marketing firm, being in New York makes total sense, and we’ve had New Jersey clients for a really long time,” she said. “We’ve been helping them in the medical market, and now they’re going to go regional. All signs are pointing that way. So, we’re in a great spot here. We are a stone’s throw away from these huge, explosive markets, and that’s a really exciting place to be. So, I’m so excited to see the whole West Coast culture of cannabis is really coming to the East Coast and to be living in it and being part of it.”
Mattio also believes the East Coast has certain advantages for cannabis businesses, because they have been able to learn from the successes and failures of companies in the more mature markets on the West Coast. “The demand is huge, and there’s this whole learning curve on the West Coast that we have benefited from,” she said. “What’s established on the West Coast has given East Coast consumers and businesses the confidence to say this is really happening.”
Looking back over the past three years, in particular, Mattio said building her own company has been a growth process for her personally, which required learning new skills and taking on new responsibilities while letting go of others.
“I had never managed people, so setting up a human resources plan and going from a one-woman show and being a little bit of a control freak and doing everything myself to having a team—who are incredible and I love them—has been an adjustment,” she said. “But it has also been a most rewarding experience. I was one person with twelve clients and now, six years later, we’re thirty-one people in three offices. That makes me very proud. Eighty percent of the company is women, and I love that too.”
Business obviously is a huge part of her day-to-day world, but Mattio also relishes her family life. After the family moved to New Jersey and settled into a new home, her husband put his career on the back burner so she could focus on scaling her business.
“We moved a lot for my husband’s job, and in 2019 I was traveling every other week for work and the business was scaling really rapidly,” she said. “So, my husband actually left his career in finance after twenty years and now stays home with our kids. It’s really amazing, and I think it’s a great lesson for my daughters to see that you can marry a man who is very ambitious and has a great career but will also support you in your dreams.”
Mattio also appreciates working in an industry where business relationships sometimes morph into personal connections, which she said makes her work life all the more enjoyable. “I consider some of my clients and colleagues to be some of my closest friends,” she said. “Some of my work colleagues are like family to me, and we go to our kids’ birthday parties; we hang out together. There is a spirit of entrepreneurship and trailblazing and being in this together.
“I love getting up every day, and love the people I work with,” she said. “I feel like it’s magic.”
Rosie Mattio’s Top 5 Tips
- Be a great resource. My number one tip is to be a resource, always, whether or not there’s immediate benefit. If a reporter needs something, go out of your way to source for them. When a reporter knows they can rely on you to help them no matter what, they will always come to you. This sets you up for when the pitch is indeed the right fit.
- Use data! Trying to pitch your awesome new beverage is great and all, but make sure your pitch isn’t self-serving. Instead, use data to sell your pitch to the media. Pull stats to show how your product ties to an up-trending flavor; profile the growth of a particular market or demographic. From there, the reporter can tell a robust trend story that includes your product. It’s not the reporter’s job to write an advertisement for you.
- Be a thought leader and create content. We all know budgets and roles are being slashed across the media landscape, and the editors that remain have very little bandwidth. If you can create meaningful content through a byline, you can gain exposure for yourself and your company.
- Influencers make an impact. Public relations is not just traditional earned media anymore. We have seen a lot of success tapping influencers to generate buzz around products. This doesn’t need to be a high-profile celebrity. Using authentic micro- and nano-influencers who have an engaged audience can really move the needle for a product or service.
- Newsjack. In an industry like cannabis, there is no shortage of “breaking news.” If you are able to lend expert commentary to a story or issue that is already having a moment, it’s a great way to build visibility.