Education Initiative: Be Real uses kids' input to revamp its antidrug program

By the fall of 2002, the Be Real drug prevention program had marked its first year in Illinois schools, but some felt it needed fixing.

By the fall of 2002, the Be Real drug prevention program had marked its first year in Illinois schools, but some felt it needed fixing.

Its message wasn't getting through enough to its target audience of students ages 10 through 14, according to Illinois leaders. The program's creators - Prevention First, a nonprofit antidrug organization, and PR firm Hill & Knowlton - started seeking ways to better reach Be Real's audience in time for the 2003-2004 school year.


"We knew that there were a lot of other antidrug campaigns out there," says Tara Kovach, an SAE at H&K. "Be Real is not designed to be used alone. It's really designed to complement other prevention efforts."

H&K and Prevention First developed the original Be Real campaign in 2001 after conducting focus groups with 100 students representing every region of Illinois. Further focus groups in the autumn of 2002, this time including teachers, revealed that teachers sometimes couldn't incorporate the message into their lesson plans and that the students didn't like the radio ads, preferring a website instead.

Keeping this feedback in mind, the campaign team set out to overhaul the program and make it more user-friendly. By the start of the 2003-2004 school year, a revamped Be Real was ready for students.


The new Be Real emphasized integrating the message - through brochures, TV, classrooms, and the adolescents themselves. H&K and Prevention First produced and distributed eight new PSAs in English and Spanish. The PSAs featured a group of Illinois teens talking, unscripted, about why they wanted to stay drug-free.

"They think everyone their age is doing drugs," says Prevention First communications director Tari Marshall, "and the statistics don't show that. That's a major fallacy among this age group."

The campaign also launched its first standalone website, The site contains interactive features that students asked for in the 2002 focus groups, including biweekly surveys about students' activities and attitudes.

Be Real formed partnerships with several groups, including the Girl and Boy Scouts of America, 4-H, and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. The campaign also raised the program's visibility by touting its message during Alcohol Awareness Month last month and the antidrug Red Ribbon Week in October. The campaign distributed revised brochures for parents with information on educating adolescents about drugs.

Be Real's message has perhaps been most effectively spread through curriculum infusion. Working with Northeastern University researchers, Be Real developed ways to integrate the message into different media, such as science and math classes that also include an antidrug lesson. Researchers wrote the lesson plans for teachers, saving them time.


The effort has reached the highest corridors of power in Illinois and has been embraced by local media. Seventeen daily newspapers and 15 radio stations in the state have covered Be Real. Leaders like Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (D) and Gov. Rod Blagovich (D) have also voiced support for the program.

For this school year, nearly 300 middle schools ordered the revised Be Real Drug-Prevention Planning Guide for more than 1,800 teachers.

Thus far this year, the program's website has attracted an average of 28 visitors a day and 700 per month.

Lastly, next month, the campaign will get the Association Programming Achievement Award from the Association Forum of Chicagoland, having beaten out 17 other nominees.


The Be Real campaign will continue through the 2006-07 school year, Marshall says, and will look for more funding after that.

PR team: Hill & Knowlton (Chicago) and Prevention First (Springfield, IL)

Campaign: Be Real drug-prevention campaign

Time frame: October 2001 to present

Budget: $488,304 for the current school year

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