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Rx Summit Spotlight: Role of Communications Evolves Along with Opioid Epidemic

April 18, 2019

As the opioid epidemic evolves, so too must the messaging from providers who are trying to prevent overdoses and treat those with active opioid use disorders.

During next week’s Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit in Atlanta, LeShaundra Cordier, MPH, CHES, communications team lead for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Christina Zurla, partner with the strategic consulting and communications firm ICF, will present ideas and advice for attendees to craft and deliver effective opioid related messages.

Ahead of their session, they spoke with Behavioral Healthcare Executive about the role communications plays in how we address the opioid epidemic, how that role has evolved in recent years, and some dos and don’ts for successful opioid messaging.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

From a high-level perspective, what role does communications play in how we address the opioid epidemic?

Cordier: For us, the goal is not just with communication but in general with how we are responding to this epidemic is preventing opioid overdoses and other opioid-related harms. How that manifests for us is working in a number of focus areas. Communications is infused in all of those areas. Our key items are making sure our communication priorities are around:

  • Helping the public with making safe choices, raising awareness about the risk of opioids
  • Supporting providers, whether that’s with education or tools and helping them improve the way opioids are prescribed
  • Building state and local capacity, which has a communication component, which we’ve seen with CDC's Rx Awareness Campaign
  • Creating social change, looking at changing people’s attitudes, beliefs and behaviors to improve health

As far as the opioid epidemic is concerned, we’re trying to empower people to make safe choices about opioids, trying to shed light on the opioid epidemic, and doing so in a way that effects change and saves lives.

Zurla: I always refer to the old adage of ‘if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?’ That’s a good way to understand the role communications plays not just in public health, but specifically when we’re talking about an issue as robust and pervasive as opioids. It’s the way we get important and often life-saving messages out to the people who need to hear it most. It can be a tweet, a website or a brochure. The best communications efforts are often multi-faceted to get information in front of the people who need it most at a time they will be most receptive.

How has the role of communications evolved in recent years?

Cordier: The role of communications is mapped directly to the evolution of the epidemic itself. We have more data than ever before. We have new technology and demographics and things that have enhanced the role of communications. We think about the epidemic evolving in three waves: We talk about the first wave around prescribing opioids and how there was an increase in prescription opioid-related deaths, the second wave being overdose deaths involving heroin, and now we’re seeing illicitly manufactured fentanyl and synthetics being an issue and poly-substance use having an impact. Each wave has resulted in changing data, changing audiences, and changing messages. It’s important we move with it. Communications every step of the way has been enhancing our work in the field. Having an impact on prevention interventions, helping increase the visibility of evolving issues, explaining and translating data, connecting partners and stakeholders as the epidemic has shifted, trying to unify a public health message to support those in the field and on the front lines. We’ve evolved with it and continue to do so. The epidemic is so rapidly changing and changing in ways we can’t always anticipate. So, we’re working on the communications side to help share that and showcase and help those in the field do the work they’re doing.

Zurla: The way we communicate with each other has also evolved. Digital communication is pervasive and everywhere. We have more ways to reach people now, but with that comes nuances. The digital age has shortened the path people have to take to get in front of the people they are trying to reach. At the same time, it has created a pretty crowded field. There is a lot of information going out to people all the time. With the opioid issue and many other important public health issues, we are challenged to get information into the world in a way that will stick and reach the people who need it most.  

When it comes to opioid messaging, what are some examples of things we should be doing and should not be doing?

Zurla: Just because we think we understand the demographics and characteristics of particular target audiences, we don’t know for sure that our messages will reach them unless they are part of the message development process.  Bring the people you want to reach into your process for coming up with messages, campaigns and materials. Allow those individuals to weigh in and provide feedback. As for a clear “don’t,” something the field has been doing well for a number of years is changing the way we talk about individuals with substance use disorders. We want to encourage individuals to use language that isn’t stigmatizing. Even in news media and the way the general public talks about these issues, there is a lot of language around “addicts” or “junkies.” We encourage folks to use people-first language, such as “person with a substance use disorder” or “person who injects drugs” so that we are humanizing this issue and reminding everyone that we’re dealing with people who are struggling with something that is a disease versus ostracizing them with a negative label.

Cordier: Another “don’t” that gets lost in the shuffle is forgetting about your partners. Don’t forget you have people in this effort who can help you, including around stigma, working with folks who are doing treatment and recovery, and working with folks who are in active recovery, and using folks already in this space to help with your message, amplify your message and could probably benefit from your message. Lean into those audiences and stakeholders.

The Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit, April 22-25 in Atlanta, is where solutions are formulated, stakeholders from Federal to family convene, and change begins. It is the annual gathering for stakeholders to discuss what's working in prevention and treatment. For more information, visit

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