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Conference report: NAATP leaders seek to set example on ethics

May 18, 2015
by Gary A. Enos, Contributing Editor
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While acknowledging that ethical misdeeds continue to undermine consumer confidence in addiction treatment facilities, leaders in the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP) believe their best weapon against questionable behavior is not aggressive policing, but a steady highlighting of the ethical standards that a growing number of influential centers and chains are adopting.

Jaywalker Lodge CEO Bob Ferguson explained the preferred approach at this week's NAATP annual conference in Carlsbad, Calif., by saying, “Rather than go after the bad guy, model what the good guys should be doing.”

Since presenting a new code of ethics to members a year ago, NAATP leaders have wrestled with how to respond to being called out for what some see as too passive a stance regarding online marketing abuses and other transgressions by some member facilities. Ferguson, who chairs NAATP's ethics committee, told attendees in a packed May 17 breakout session room that leaders believe that as a membership organization, NAATP's ideal role is to create a platform for discussion around adoption of ethical guidelines.

If the association receives a complaint about a member organization, it generally will do two things, Ferguson said: notify the company's CEO that a complaint has been received, and urge the complainant to contact the organization that accredits and/or licenses that particular facility. In the meantime, NAATP hopes that modeling proper behavior in marketing and service delivery will reduce the likelihood that it ever will have to consider bouncing an organization out of the association, a consideration that Ferguson called “the number one issue we wrestle with.”

Members often have said among themselves that the only way to be removed from NAATP is to stop paying one's dues to the association.

Visual evidence of wrongdoing

During his presentation, Ferguson helped bring to life some of the often-heard complaints of predatory practices in online marketing of treatment facilities to consumers, from using false addresses in order to appear in local searches to using competitors' names to funnel unsuspecting consumers to another facility. He showed numerous recently captured screen shots depicting improper uses of the Jaywalker Lodge name—some with several toll-free numbers that diverted consumers elsewhere, others with images and language lifted directly from Jaywalker Lodge's own marketing materials. An unrelated site depicted a clinical leader who turned out to be a fictitious individual altogether, with her image obtained from a stock art service.

“As a consumer, the best thing you can say is, 'It's a mess out there,'” Ferguson said. “It's not cool, it's not fair, and it's obvious.”

Yet perhaps more quietly, he said, a growing number of organizations are highlighting the ethical principles by which they operate, many by prominently posting their ethical standards for the treatment-seeking public to see (Ferguson did this for Jaywalker Lodge after getting the idea from the chief executive of Twin Town Treatment Centers during a panel session at last year's National Conference on Addiction Disorders). Ferguson cited as one example the multi-facility Foundations Recovery Network, which among its provisions states that it will remove upon request any facility's listing in its owned treatment directories.

In addition, Ferguson said, the growing Elements Behavioral Health and the online consumer resource Recovery Brands (the latter operating the platform) responded to concerns from NAATP members about improper use of competing facilities' names (one of which resulted in a lawsuit against the organizations that was ultimately dismissed) by advancing their own standards and releasing documents on ethics.

While abuses remain common in the industry, Ferguson believes NAATP members have an opportunity to shift the conversation in the coming months by modeling proper behavior. “If you want to compete, brand yourself around your ethics. Be the David against the Goliath,” he said.

Web intelligence

At a second May 17 session specific to Internet marketing at the NAATP meeting, two marketing experts joined Ferguson for a panel discussion that characterized the Internet marketing landscape for the treatment industry. David Giacomini, founder of marketing agency Idea Direct, urged treatment executives to resist the allure of a costly top position in search results and said he encourages businesses to live by three marketing tenets: understand the customer, focus on the business, and be authentic.

“Online marketing and ethics, they're not mutually exclusive,” said Giacomini. He added that his company avoids working in this space with companies that cite high treatment success rates that are based on the use of questionable variables, for example.

Tom Chesnick, who works in Google's performance marketing sector for the Midwest region, said transparency holds the key component to building a solid reputation with potential customers. “It's a very personal industry,” he said. Chesnick offered some guidance to providers on monitoring marketing abuses in a field where the stakes are high and the cost of succeeding in online search is steadily increasing (with the search terms “recovery,” “rehab” and “treatment” all ranking in Google's 20 costliest according to the latest available data).