Communications, RCO’s, and the Advancement of the Recovery Movement

Written by Thomas Russo - Communications Director for CCAR and reposted here

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I’ve been honored to serve in the role of CCAR’s Communications Manager for the last sixteen months. I am a person in Recovery who has always cherished the written word and its power and it has been a joy to apply my background in Journalism to the message of Recovery. But with that joy has also come the realization that I am one of only a handful of people in the United States who occupy similar positions at Recovery Community Organizations (RCO’s – click to read an article defining what an RCO is). I do not mention this from a place of ego, but rather, because it needs to change. Incorporation of Communications professionals as a standard role at RCO’s is key to the advancement of the recovery movement and to the propagation of RCO’s across the country. Before we explore why I feel this is the case, lets quickly take a look at what the role of Communications Manager entails. One online resource describes the position as “…working to propel a brand’s image through consistent messaging and strategy. They do everything from oversee the development of brand collateral to developing internal and external communications and marketing strategies. They also liaise with media to help the brand gain exposure in local, national, and international media.” (Glassdoor, n.d.) Sounds pretty corporate or profit-driven, right? For this reason, this position may be viewed by RCO’s as something to aspire to when there is money available and there is nothing more pressing. Or, perhaps as a duty that can be handled piecemeal by a staff member who has another, unrelated role. Perhaps we are also operating under the dark cloud of stigma that consciously or unconsciously tells us our Recovery Community Organizations aren’t “big” enough or “important” enough to need a dedicated communications representative whose job is to promote, disseminate, protect, and reinforce the message of an organization, much less cultivate a brand. Some may ask, what does the “brand” of an RCO even look like? The answer is simple in the case of CCAR. Recovery First. How’s that for a brand? Recovery above profit. Recovery above self-promotion. Recovery above everything. Selfless dedication to the success of others without expectation of recognition is a beautiful brand foundation that should be quite palatable even to audiences outside the Recovery Community. Other RCO’s branding would also most likely fall along these lines, providing a more cohesive national identity for this network of organizations, and lodging the message and spirit of our movement in the public consciousness. Audiences seek consistency. Communications efforts on a national level that worked toward branding, positive media exposure, and production of quality, recovery-based materials – even in a loosely coordinated fashion – would provide a more easily understandable and digestible narrative about what this national network of RCO’s is and the movement we represent. Continuity and consistency of message, on a national level, conveys legitimacy and cultivates trust. The more we are on the same page when it comes to various issues facing the recovery community and how to best support people seeking or in Recovery, the stronger we are as a national network and as a movement. It is easier for state legislatures to deflect when they are being approached for funding or policy recommendations by what they interpret as a small, locally-influential community organization. Continuity of message would reinforce the presence and identity of the movement in a way that better solidifies it in the public consciousness and conveys to decision-makers that while we are community-based, we are also representatives of a national movement. And a voting block – approximately twenty million American citizens are living with a substance use disorder[1]. There is influence there if we are united enough to harness it. Coordination among Communications professionals can help facilitate that unity. Moving on to a very important point, sustained, recovery-centered communications also help to combat stigma and discrimination. The cultivation of a PR presence from RCO’s will compel media organizations to recognize RCO’s as experts in their field. Offering “expert comment” frequently in stories, working closely with the journalists writing stories about us, and issuing pertinent press releases offers an alternate narrative to the current one regarding people seeking or in recovery. We in the Recovery Community know that taking a 16th run at detox after your 15th try is a heroic pursuit. Many outside the Recovery Community may view this process differently. If you’re helping to coordinate a story that includes an individual with a background such as this, working closely with the journalist writing the story could help to ensure that person is portrayed fairly and faithfully. That is one example. We can also tear down that stigma by taking every opportunity to turn the conversation toward Recovery by way of various mediums. We deal in hope, love, and empathy. Invaluable provisions that save lives yet are not easily represented in “gold standard” data collection efforts. Having professionals who are able to express those intangible concepts through various forms of media is one of the ways we can show the true courage and initiative it takes to pursue and sustain Recovery. Combatting stigma and discrimination in this way does take time but movements with identities solidified longer than ours are still working in this way to erode bias. And while many may think this is too much of a long-range strategy, tactics that worked for other movements may not work for ours. I believe the tactics we use to raise awareness about Recovery should reflect the spirit of Recovery. Intelligent explanation, not angry rants. Solutions rather than blame. Education in the face of ignorance, instead of adversarial retorts. And professionalism when critics expect the opposite. If we don’t take control of the narrative of our movement on a national level, others will. If we do not work to “legitimize” Recovery Community Organizations and shed light on their efficacy in supporting and maintaining Recovery, the for-profit realm will appear to be the answer. Many private treatment organizations have aggressive communications efforts –utilizing expensive marketing campaigns and initiatives that not only promote their service but also attempt to tap in to the momentum (and brand) of the Recovery Movement. Money is one of the fastest ways to raise your public profile and it is a concern of mine that for-profit institutions and organizations will hijack the messaging of the movement for their own gain. But I believe this can be countered by a concerted effort from Communications professionals within the Recovery Movement. As I mentioned above, the “brand” of Recovery doesn’t need to be sold but it would benefit from being magnified. I firmly believe that if enough people are exposed to the message and values of the Recovery Movement by way of organized efforts to provide that exposure, acceptance and widespread support will follow. Money is money but, as Don Coyhis said, “more powerful than the march of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come”. It is the job of Communications professionals to bring that idea to the masses. With limited resources and Recovery support as our first priority, external messaging is indeed secondary to that most important objective. But there are many RCO’s across the country who have worked for years, serving their communities by way of hard work and creative strategies, and still struggle to get funding. And, frankly, the respect they deserve. This strategy I’ve briefly discussed here is not about recognition or accolades or looking for a pat on the back. This is about joining our humble voices in a chorus of unity and love to extend our culture to as many people as possible. A chorus of voices so loud and yet so inviting that it cannot be ignored.

  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2017). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health(HHS Publication No. SMA 17-5044, NSDUH Series H-52). Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/

Thomas Russo has been employed at CCAR since 2018 when he first started working as a member of the Emergency Department Recovery Coach team. He transitioned to the position of Communications Manager in August of 2019. Tom is a person in Recovery, with a passion for Advocacy, who considers it an honor to carry the message of Recovery and the Recovery Movement to the masses.


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