Opioid Crisis Requires a Community Effort

Combining Strengths to Confront a Potent Problem

One of the most prominent public affairs topics in recent months has been “The Opioid Crisis” or “The Opioid Epidemic.” Hardly a day goes by without a major news story offering up frightening new statistics about the rising number of opioid abusers, opioid-related arrests or opioid-related deaths.

Clearly, it’s a national healthcare crisis. But in Massachusetts, the problem is particularly acute. Recently, the New York Times noted that across the country, someone dies of an opioid overdose every 24 minutes, while in Massachusetts, the rate is five people a day. According to a posting on mass.gov, the official state website:

“The opioid-related death rate in Massachusetts has surpassed the national average, with an especially sharp rise in the last two years.

 “In one way or another — through deaths, nonfatal overdoses, or disruptions to jobs, marriages, families, and neighborhoods — every community in Massachusetts has been impacted by this growing crisis.”

Recently, the New England Society of Healthcare Communications (NESHCO), of which SPRYTE is a member, sponsored a webinar exploring how one community hospital was addressing the crisis. Christopher Smalley, Director of Marketing & Communications, and Sarah Cloud, LICSW, Director of Social Work, for Beth Israel Deaconess-Plymouth in Plymouth, MA, talked about how officials at their hospital worked with local government and community leaders to lead a comprehensive plan of outreach, education, intervention and treatment to address the growing epidemic.

Community Problem/Collaborative Solutions

The first step was to establish a consensus that the Opioid Crisis was more than just a drug-related problem that affected opioid abusers; it was a public health and safety issue affecting families, coworkers, students and others throughout the community. It’s a complicated public affairs/public health issue and there are no easy answers.

The catalyst was a “60 Minutes” style news video about the opioid crisis in Plymouth produced by journalism students from Plymouth North High School, which is just across the street from Beth Israel. The video showed individuals who admitted getting drugs from hospitals by stealing doctors’ notepads and forging their signatures.

The video was a wake-up call. In previous years Beth Israel had helped sponsor a community health program called “Healthy Plymouth” that focused on common concerns such as healthy eating and making healthy lifestyle choices. But opioids were a whole different ballgame. It was a problem that challenged the entire community- businesspeople, professionals and citizens of all categories.

Beth Israel led the effort by reaching out to police and community leaders. Working together, hospital and community leaders obtained a $3.7 million state grant to develop a substance abuse awareness and treatment program. Project Outreach is a collaboration of public safety agencies and healthcare providers designed to respond to the growing number of opioid overdoses by conducting follow-up visits within 12-24 hours after an overdose.

 Project Outreach

The two main aspects of the program are overdose follow-up and community outreach.

Overdose Follow-up: After an overdose occurs in a participating community the Project Outreach team comes together to decide the best course of action for the individual. If in-person follow-up is advised, a healthcare worker and police officer goes to the home of the overdose victim. The healthcare worker discusses treatment options with the individual and, if they are willing, helps get them into a treatment program.

Community Outreach: Twice a month the Project Outreach team hosts a drop-in center. At these centers, health care providers help with treatment options, provide training and distribute Narcan at no cost. (Narcan, also known as Naloxone, is often administered in emergency situations to reverse opiate overdose). The drop-in centers are open for anyone looking for information about treatment, including family members and friends. This setting provides a unique opportunity to have the undivided attention of healthcare workers who specialize in treating substance use disorders. They can also answer questions about addiction, discuss treatment options, assist on issues with paying for treatment, and help get individuals into treatment programs.

Making an Impact

During 2016, after the initiation of the program, Project Outreach recorded a total of 2,921 patients provided with behavioral health intervention in the Beth Israel Emergency Department. In addition, of 200 non-fatal overdoses in the Town of Plymouth, 91 declined services in the emergency department and received follow-up care in the community. Another 65 were located and engaged in assessment and 58 were connected to a treatment program.

During the same time, 10 drop-in centers were created within the community, each with the ability to connect patients to treatment without overdosing or having to go to the emergency department. The centers also offer Naloxone training and kits as well as referrals to support services.

A variety of awareness campaigns were also part of the prescription. Project Outreach helped provide information to the surrounding public about Naloxone, Pain Management and Wellness, as well as a MedSafe Drop Box kiosk where people can bring in personal prescriptions that are no longer needed or wanted.

Earned Media

All of this was accomplished primarily through earned media and word of mouth. The only advertising expenditure involved published rack cards to provide information about how to recognize an overdose and other healthcare issues. Stories about the program have appeared throughout the state in local and regional newspapers as well as on radio and TV.

Not only did this help minimize costs for the hospital – in the long run, it enhanced the level of community cooperation that was so important to the program’s overall success. So far, Project Outreach has expanded throughout Plymouth County to 27 towns and cities, as well as five additional hospitals. Project leaders have created a web-based database to collect real time data. They are also providing guidance to healthcare facilities and police departments around the nation as more and more localities seek answers to this virulent problem.

Beyond the Banquet Hall

Use social, PR to Propel Sponsorships

If you’re in professional services with a healthcare practice, you know sponsoring healthcare-related seminars, conferences, committees and other events is a terrific way to get your organization’s name out to target audiences in a positive manner, and be seen “hanging” with other notable – and sometimes bigger – names in health services.  But getting the biggest return on investment on that financial commitment takes more than slapping your name on a banner. It takes planning and effort.

For some, simply being associated with the happenings in the room is the reward, but at SPRYTE, we look for other ways to leverage that sponsorship, whether it’s for ourselves or our clients. Just because that conference is one day, doesn’t mean you should be one-and-done.

Here are some tried and tested ways to extend your sponsorship beyond the banquet hall:

Seek recurring or ongoing opportunities. SPRYTE this year committed to sponsor a prominent Chamber of Commerce’s healthcare issues committee, which holds four high-level, members-only meetings during the year, each with its own keynote speaker on a relevant topic. We chose to be a 2017 sponsor to bolster our firm’s reputation as healthcare communications experts. While sponsoring a single event is great, if you can underwrite an ongoing series or recurring meetings even better. Your name exposure and image as a contributor to the industry or community will rise exponentially, especially in the likely event that attendees will differ from one event to the next.

Run with social media. Post, post, and post some more, across all your social channels. When you sign on to the sponsorship. In the days leading up to the event(s). Live from the event itself. Post-event. Live-tweet remarks from the speaker. And be sure to use relevant hashtags and handles, which you should research in advance. Retweet or share posts from the event organizers too.  Some sample posts:

  • “We’re proud to be sponsoring the [fill in the blank] Conference.”
  • “Great to join [insert other sponsors] in sponsoring the 2017 [fill in the blank] Conference!”
  • “Just one week until the [fill in the blank] Conference. We hope to see you there!”
  • “Health consumers are in for a rude wake-up call, says [insert speaker], speaking at the [fill in the blank] Conference.”
  • “SPRYTE was there today as the state’s attorney general outlined new initiatives to [fill in the blank].”
  • “Our CEO greeted [fill in the blank] from the state department of health and human services during the [fill in the blank] Conference.”

Take pictures. Photograph your brand presence at the event, whether it’s a banner or a booth or a tablecloth under the cookie trays. Get pictures of you or your staff at the event, both posed next to your logo and candids talking with other attendees or presenters. Shoot the dais, and the speakers. Never let an opportunity go to include a good photo with your social media posts.

Let your industry know: While your sponsorship might not be newsworthy for the local paper, it’s probably just the kind of thing your industry trade publications and your own affiliated groups will want to know about. Send a press release to those publications, being sure to mention the other sponsors (it’s who you’re seen with, right?). If they use the news, share the links on social media.

Parlay your sponsorship into speaking opportunities. Frequently, a speaker’s company will sign on as a sponsor, but it can work the other way too. Particularly if your organization will be underwriting a recurring event or a series, you’re in a good position to negotiate a spot on a panel, or a speech by your chief executive. But remember that your proposed topic and content must be relevant to the audience in any case.

Blog. In addition to social media, write one or more blogs about the event, your company’s involvement, and the information that was shared. Include links to the host, speaker’s organization, venue if appropriate, and other sponsors. And of course, share the blog(s) on your social media.

Ensure you’re getting what you paid for. Event organizers promise all kinds of perks to sponsors, including logo in marketing materials and e-blasts, recognition in the room, and inclusion in their own newsletters or press releases. Inspect what you expect. Make sure your logo links to your site, the ½ page ad you were promised looks great BEFORE publication, the banner with your name stands in a highly visible position for attendees. Be sure to provide the exact wording you’d like them to use about your company when thanking the sponsors verbally or on a screen, and your company and staff’s names are spelled correctly in photo captions the organizer disseminates.

Network. When everything is said and done, you want to know who was in the room, and be able to follow up after. Get business cards like they’re going out of style. Arrange sit-downs with those you talked with. And tag them in your social media posts, especially if they are in the picture. If the event host offers a list of attendees, get it, and try to follow up with as many as you can with a brief note, or invitation to connect on Linkedin.

Go for those sponsorships if you can, but think of them as true opportunities to market your organization, not simply a way to get your logo seen.

Taking the Media Out of a Media Event

Can it Still be a Success without Cameras?

There are publicity stunts, and photo opportunities.  Events designed for maximum media coverage and events with a greater purpose, which the media might cover.  Sometimes photographers and reporters will come out, but even if they don’t, is there enough meat to your happening to call it successful?  Put another way, if a tree falls in a forest and a journalist doesn’t cover it, did it still fall?

The answer, in every case, should be Yes!

Sometimes, organizations stage events to mark significant milestones, to thank employees, or to engage the community.  Healthcare organizations especially are steeped in the culture of giving back, educating their target customers, raising awareness, or raising funds for a new piece of equipment or new clinical service.  These events may not always pay dividends with a picture in the paper or a story on the evening news, but if there’s an organic reason for hosting it in the first place, it can soften the blow of having no media attend.

Not a Zero-Sum Game

SPRYTE client Griswold Home Care, marking its 35th anniversary, chose to kick off a series of events throughout the year with a luncheon for employees and its network of caregivers, partners and vendors. Lunch was followed with a group walk in a nearby park, with matching anniversary T-shirts and a raffle to benefit its nonprofit foundation, named for the company’s founder, Jean Griswold.

Local elected officials were invited to attend, and the media were alerted. Materials noting the anniversary, including a press release and letter to the editor, were made available to its 200-plus franchise operators to use in their local territories.

Even though no cameras showed for the walk, by all accounts the event was a rousing success.  Caregivers felt appreciated, employees had a morale boost (and a break from their routine), and money was raised for the Griswold Foundation.  Some lucky employees went back to the office with prizes, including a FitBit and gift cards.

The company’s executives were thrilled to receive a proclamation saluting the anniversary, read in person by the county commissioner, and a handsome certificate noting the occasion from a U.S. senator.  Both will be framed and hung in the office lobby.  A local community paper committed to run some photos, and franchise-generated stories appeared in Florida and Delaware.

Could this event have been more successful had a TV station shown up? Not if you ask the employees. Would its presence have been a bonus? Sure, but that wasn’t essential to what was conceived as a company celebration for employees and other internal audiences.

Assess Your Goals

Communications professionals need to ask several questions when planning an event:

  • What is the main purpose of this event, and who will it benefit?
  • What will a successful event look like? (e.g. large number of people, money raised, social media engagement, media turnout)
  • Is the event worth having and can it stand on its own even if no media show up?
  • Can the content of the event be repurposed for internal or external use, like photos for an annual report, company newsletter, e-blast or social media?

If you have a clear idea of what kind of event your healthcare organization wants to do and what the higher purpose is, and you execute it the best you can, it will be a success, whether media show up or not.

Honoring Doctors: The Calm Within the Storm

From the time we enter our formative years, we’re told that to make friends and avoid unnecessary disagreements, we should never discuss religion or politics in public. It’s a general rule that is well worth remembering – whether you’re building personal friendships or business relationships.

Sometimes, though, a public affairs issue casts such a large shadow that its influence is hard to ignore. For many healthcare organizations, the recent debate over healthcare reform has been the proverbial “elephant in the living room.”

While the broader issue was controversial, it created a rare opportunity to make a positive, inclusive statement. It’s a tricky balancing act. And to make it work requires developing and implementing a public affairs strategy that exhibits great awareness, sensitivity and deftness.

Focusing on What’s Most Important

The recent observance of Doctors Day created just such a public affairs opportunity for one of our clients, Crossroads Hospice & Palliative Care. National Doctors Day (March 30th) is a day established to recognize physicians, their work and their contributions to society and their respective communities.

Beginning in early December, 2016, our plan was to work with medical directors from each of Crossroads’ 11 regional sites to develop an op-ed commentary that would pay homage to primary care physicians throughout their local regions for the ongoing commitment and sacrifice that they demonstrate on behalf of their patients.

Making the Connection

In the midst of this highly debated public affairs issue of healthcare reform, the connection between hospice doctors and the potential challenges facing primary care physicians was particularly apparent. Hospice doctors care for patients and their families in their most vulnerable moments – guiding and comforting them through some of the toughest decisions they will ever make. What kind of quality of life does the patient want? What side effects can be expected from chemo or certain medications? What’s the best way to deal with pain? It’s a role hospice doctors readily accept.

Likewise, patients often rely on their primary care physicians to help make health-related decisions that affect healthcare costs, quality of care and outcomes. Depending on how the healthcare reform debate turns out, many doctors may find themselves in similar roles, as they are called upon to help their patients navigate issues of access, care and insurance. It’s no exaggeration to say that for millions of people such decisions ultimately could become a life or death matter. It was these brave doctors, fighting on the front lines every day, who were the focus of the commentary.

An Inclusive Message

One basic goal was to offer a message of inclusion, a sharp contrast from the divisiveness that the healthcare reform debate had engendered throughout the campaign season. From a public affairs perspective, Crossroads’ medical directors embraced that idea. As medical professionals they well understood the sensitivity and the challenges that their primary care colleagues would be facing regardless of how the healthcare reform debate played out among national policymakers. The bottom line was that primary care physicians would still be called upon to help their patients to the best of their abilities.

The commentary we developed (“Saluting Our Doctors: The Calm Within the Storm”) studiously avoided taking a partisan side of the public affairs debate, instead urging policymakers to take a cue from the physicians’ creed: “First, do no harm.”


Timing was also a consideration. Had legislation been introduced and passed within days of the presidential inauguration, a commentary calling for policymakers not to act hastily would have been moot. From our public affairs experience, we thought such quick action was unlikely. At worst, legislation might pass the House, but then be sitting in the Senate awaiting action by the time the Doctors Day op-ed would appear. It was a chance worth taking.

In the end, everything fell into place. Crossroads medical directors had the opportunity to make a very positive observation relating to a highly visible public affairs issue, thus increasing the chances that the commentary would be selected by respective editors from thousands of submissions for publication. In addition, Crossroads demonstrated that its professionals understood the ramifications of healthcare policy and cared about the potential impact on patients and families. As a hospice provider, caring for patients and their families is, very simply, what Crossroads does. The op-ed campaign helped burnish its image in that regard.

The public affairs campaign was highly successful, with placements across seven of nine participating Crossroads sites. Major placements included The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron.com, The Philadelphia Business Journal and Cleveland.com. All told, the campaign resulted in more than 2.2 million impressions across the Crossroads footprint, earning it an enhanced reputation as an organization that keeps its eye on the ball, focusing on the most important aspects of public policy – how anticipated changes could affect the patients, families and communities it serves.