A pivotal moment in the opioid crisis

Opportunity to prevent opioid misuse and abuse as settlement money reaches states

tyler tullis

Mallory Peak, PhD
Senior Account Director

Sep 18, 2019

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In recent weeks, we’ve seen a series of developments in the United States’ ongoing efforts to address the opioid crisis. Between the $572 million Johnson + Johnson settlement in Oklahoma and the Sackler family offering $3 billion with Purdue Pharma filling for chapter 11 bankruptcy, the floodgates are opening for a greater degree of accountability around this issue. This development means more resources for public agencies, health providers and community groups — a trend we expect to see in more states.

When our systems fail us the burden and opportunity,
for change falls on our shoulders.

A looming question is how to best to direct these funds towards meaningful, effective prevention and treatment strategies. While there are no simple solutions to curbing the opioid crisis, when it comes to changing behavior and mitigating harm, there are best practices that should be in place.

Working in this space for years we have seen common pitfalls, as well as big successes. For example, we’ve worked with the Washington State Health Care Authority a national leader in the development and execution of such campaigns—since 2017 when we launched the “Starts with One” campaign across the state.

The power of this campaign and Washington’s success in changing audience behaviors around opioid use, storage and disposal stems from using communication to support holistic strategies across agencies from administration to community driven programs. Instead of giving into scare tactic messaging, which leaves audiences overwhelmed and defeated, public education balanced concern and hope, providing specific calls to action.

When our systems fail us, the burden and opportunity for change falls on our shoulders as community members, as parents, as friends. Social change marketing as DH knows it works to deliver specific messages to influential audiences. We look to normalize protective behaviors through positive social norms, through building on individuals’ capacity to care and most importantly, to act.

Washington’s campaign has achieved encouraging results, including a 10% shift in young adults willing to have a tough conversation about this subject with a friend or family member, and 77% of that audience indicating they are very unlikely to share a prescription. The campaign toolkit for “Starts with One” has been downloaded by partner organizations over 1,200 times.

These results stem from messages that don’t overwhelm or frighten audiences — instead, they work to activate audiences to take one simple step to help curb the problem, making a daunting challenge more manageable.

Addressing this crisis is a long game. But we’re in it. So what should states, counties, cities and other communities be thinking about in public education as additional resources arrive from settlements, grants and federal support? Here’s our checklist:

  1. Understand your true goal. In launching an opioid prevention or treatment campaign, it’s one thing to raise awareness about the issue. It’s another thing to change audience behaviors around opioids, locking up medications and safe disposal of prescriptions or seeking treatment. 
  2. Think carefully about your audience. It is tempting to say our audience is “everyone!” Because everyone can or could do something important to impact this crisis. Consider who you can reach effectively and how their behavior can impact your campaign goals. Is it possible to reach vulnerable populations? Or do you have a more direct connection to important influencers and gate keepers?
  3. Invest in creative that works. Messaging that plays on fear may be memorable and shocking to your audience, but research shows it doesn’t change behavior. For those seeking treatment, that messaging can feel stigmatizing and alienating. For prevention, research over the past 20 years has shown repeatedly that scare tactic messaging doesn’t work.
  4. Build a coalition. No single agency, no matter how large, can tackle a crisis this big on their own. Consider the local organizations around your communities who can reach special populations and credibly deliver messages on behalf of the campaign. For the Starts with One campaign, we built a toolkit of templated materials that partners could download and easily localize, to help support communities’ work on the ground.
  5. Allocate resources appropriately. Resources to address the opioid crisis may be on the rise, but for many states and communities they are still rare. Find or convene your state’s steering committee of state public health agencies, local health jurisdictions, city and county governments and community organizations. Together, you have more resources to pursue grants and wisely allocate precious budget between treatment and emergency service efforts, along with proactive prevention initiatives.

If you want to learn more about Washington’s “Starts with One” campaign, you can read the case study from Year 1 here. https://wearedh.com/project/dshs-opioid-prevention-campaign/

You can also view the campaign webpage at getthefactsrx.com, including the partner toolkit ready to be localized for Washington’s local organizations.

As marketers, as public health professionals, as community leaders: we all have an opportunity and an obligation to promote meaningful, effective change.

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