Fighting Tennessee's Opioid Addiction: Inside the Best of Silver Anvil Campaign

August 1, 2018


As director of corporate communications at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee — one of the largest health care companies in the state — Mary Danielson knew the damage opioids were inflicting in her region.

But she wasn’t aware that the epidemic had reached the people in her life too.

Then one day, just as her team was about to publicly launch “Don’t Be an Accidental Drug Dealer” — their campaign with MP&F Strategic Communications to combat the crisis in Tennessee — Danielson stumbled across a harrowing Facebook status from a coworker: She had lost her 24-year-old daughter to an opioid overdose.

Danielson shared the news with the rest of the company, hoping the connection to the cause would give her team an added sense of purpose and urgency. And while it accomplished that, it also inspired many of her employees to come forth with their own heartbreaking stories of addiction, deceased friends and fractured families.

“So many talked about having lost a loved one — brothers, sisters, children, stepchildren caught by the claws of the opioid monster,” says Danielson. “To know that it negatively impacts so many of the people you work alongside every day really brought home to us how important it was to engage in this public health initiative.”

The campaign took home a 2018 Best of Silver Anvil during the annual awards ceremony in New York on June 7.

Origins and obstacles

With Nashville located at the junction of interstates 65, 40 and 24, Tennessee is a hotbed for manufacturing, writes The Tennessean’s Lance Williams. Amazon has warehouses in Murfreesboro and Lebanon. The country’s largest inland shipping company, Ingram Barge, operates out of Nashville. Smith Water Products Co. and Tyson Foods Inc. also have major plants in the region.

While a wealth of manufacturing companies and warehouses provides ample job opportunities, it also makes Tennessee a more injury-prone state. “The history of Appalachia [includes] a manual labor-type workforce, which obviously lends itself to more physical issues than, say, a desk job,” says Danielson.

Herein lies the paradox for Danielson: When Tennessee workers become injured and immobilized, they’re prescribed opioid pills. And in 2015, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee covered more than 1 million of these prescriptions for its 3.4 million members, dispensing 6.6 million opioids. This amounts to 50 pills per individual. On a statewide scale, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked Tennessee among the top five in the nation in opioid prescriptions for that year.

Therefore, their PR campaign would be forced to reckon with an obvious but complex question: How can you combat a drug crisis if the drugs themselves are obtained legally?

Danielson’s solution would be to educate the public on how they could stop opioid abuse in their own families, friend groups and communities. To carry out this message, BlueCross BlueShield partnered with MP&F — a Nashville-based strategic communications firm with expert knowledge on marketing to Tennesseans — and together the two companies teamed up with Count It! Lock It! Drop It! (CLD), a drug abuse prevention program created by the Coffee County Anti-Drug Coalition, in Manchester, Tenn.

In CLD, BlueCross BlueShield and MP&F found an organization whose mission was to address the spread of addiction at a local level, reminding people in the possession of opioids to be hyper-vigilant of dosages and pill theft.  

“The message was: Count your pills so that you know if somebody is stealing them,” says Jennifer Brantley, a partner at MP&F. “I have a son who's an athlete, and he’s had a few surgeries. I had no idea until I started working on this campaign that kids go into homes and steal a couple of pills. You wouldn’t notice unless you were counting them.”

Media outreach and execution

As of 2016, before BlueCross BlueShield and MP&F started “Don’t Be an Accidental Drug Dealer,” only 10 percent of the public was aware of CLD. However, 73 percent of survey participants felt that efforts to educate people on preventing pain medication abuse could be effective. In other words: Tennesseans wanted to tackle the epidemic. They just needed to know where to begin. 

Because CLD was already a well-connected organization with a diverse group of stakeholders, ranging from pharmacists and doctors to school officials and business leaders, Danielson and Brantley could pour most of their time and energy into public outreach and media relations.

BlueCross BlueShield and MP&F partnered with Gannett to publish articles on opioid-focused news, including scoring a front-page slot in The Tennessean (their flagship publication in Tennessee) to announce their work with CLD. “It really got the buzz going for CLD,” says Danielson. “It gave credibility to a grassroots program that was relatively unknown at the time and helped position them as one of the real public voices on opioids.”

They also collaborated with the Drug Enforcement Agency for National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, where communities across the state hosted events for people to drop off their prescription medications, and regularly posted to social media to remind Tennesseans to count, lock and safely dispose of their pills.

Danielson and Brantley even managed to score a key celebrity to be the face of their communications: 2017’s Miss Tennessee, Caty Davis. Davis was a natural choice for program ambassador; opioid addiction contributed to the death of her father and half-brother.

“Caty talked about not being ashamed of having an addict in your family and having an open dialogue [about opioids],” says Brantley. “She was an invaluable tool in our communication strategy.”

Results and outlook

In the end, the media partnerships and grassroots outreach paid off. Among the many encouraging results from the campaign’s one-year evaluation survey, awareness of CLD ballooned from 10 percent to 21 percent, with the number of people planning to give back their unused opioids rising from 30 percent to 43 percent. And throughout the year, CLD collected 34,268.98 pounds of opioids at community drop boxes, marking a 125 percent increase from the previous year.

Successes aside, though, the road ahead remains grim. Prevention efforts can’t solve the epidemic’s more systemic problems, such as worker injuries and the ease of obtaining prescriptions.

But if there’s a message to be gleaned from BlueCross BlueShield and MP&F’s work, it’s that strong communication and collaboration can, eventually, help like-minded people achieve anything.

“The opioid epidemic can’t be tackled alone,” says Danielson. “It’s going to involve everyone within the health care sector, down to the doctors and the patients themselves working in a concerted effort to overcome this crisis.”

Dean Essner

Dean Essner is the editorial assistant for PRSA’s publications. A former resident of Washington, D.C., he holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and English from the University of Maryland. Email:


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