In 2021, over 1,400 people died of an opioid overdose in Chicago, the highest number ever recorded. Most of these overdose deaths involved the presence of fentanyl. With opioid overdoses impacting every community area in the city, the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) knew it had to initiate large-scale prevention and harm reduction initiatives.
Getting the word out about a life-saving resource
The CDPH faced two challenges in getting the word out about its Narcan and fentanyl test kits distribution programs, which are proven to be instrumental in reducing overdose deaths. First, in Chicago (as in the rest of the country), local news outlets surpass official local government channels as the leading information providers about fentanyl.
Second, local news tends to focus heavily on arrests and drug seizures as part of the broader efforts to combat drug-related criminal activity. As a result, residents discuss fentanyl in the context of crime and as a police issue, mainly focusing on policies and laws that could remove it from the streets. Information about harm reduction and mitigation – such as support for addicts or factual information about the specific dangers of fentanyl – is less prominent in the discourse.
In January 2022, The CDPH partnered with the Chicago Public Library to distribute Narcan kits in libraries around the city. Information about this available resource was at risk of getting lost in the conversation, dominated by news reports about opioids and fentanyl. The CDPH had to cut through the “noise” and get the word out about this life-saving resource.
The Zencity Solution
Track organic conversations to tailor, adjust, and assess communications strategy
The CDPH turned to Zencity Organic to understand the public conversation around fentanyl, specifically the impact of its official messaging in the conversation as a whole. As a first step, a custom project dedicated to tracking the discourse on fentanyl allowed the CDPH to monitor the conversation in real time and on an ongoing basis.
In doing so, the CDPH learned that in the first six months of 2022, official messaging by the city amounted to less than a fifth (19%) of the fentanyl conversation in Chicago. News reports about arrests, drug busts, and arguments about crime and politics drowned out information about the Narcan distribution program. As a result, awareness about the city’s life-saving resources was limited.
In July, the CDPH initiated a new tactic: ahead of the Lollapalooza Festival, the department published social media posts targeting festival-goers. The posts included popular festival hashtags and vital information about mitigation strategies and readily available test kits.
The effectiveness of this tactic was hard to miss on the Zencity Organic dashboard: The Lollapalooza posts alone garnered more attention online than all official messaging about overdose prevention before Lollapalooza. Official messaging’s share of the discourse nearly doubled, creating the strongest engagement since the launch of the Narcan distribution program, far exceeding it.
The Lollapalooza posts generated much-needed engagement with residents; posts unrelated to Lollapalooza were met with tacit support throughout this year. Residents mostly liked and shared posts about Narcan distribution, while commentary was very limited. In contrast, the Lollapalooza posts generated active discourse about overdose prevention; posts were met with nearly 1K comments and over 2K shares. A leading theme in the commentary was applauding the city for its life-saving harm reduction interventions.
Increased awareness and engagement leading to a promising new messaging strategy for the CDPH
Zencity Organic dashboard’s real-time and ongoing conversation tracker alerted the city that its messaging was struggling to make a dent in the online conversation. This prompted the CDPH to adapt its strategy and leverage increased public attention and excitement about Lollapalooza – sparking a public conversation and increasing awareness of the danger of fentanyl and how to avoid it. The Zencity dashboard confirmed the effectiveness of this new strategy, clueing the CDPH to the fact that this strategy was impactful.
Since then, the CDPH has deployed this strategy regularly – tying its public health messaging to trending conversation topics in the city: during the height of the Monkeypox outbreak in Chicago, the CDPH tailored messaging around Market Days – a weekend-long music festival in a popular LGBTQ neighborhood. “We’ve found this strategy has led to more engagement and media requests,” the CDPH noted.
Following the increased demand and interest after the Lollapalooza weekend, the CDPH expanded its program: Narcan nasal spray is now available free of charge at all 81 Chicago Public Libraries throughout the city, with over 2,000 Narcan kits and more than 80,000 fentanyl testing test strips distributed, and more than 300 librarians trained – at least one in every branch – making this program one of the largest in the country.
“Zencity helped show us how to get more people talking about and engaging with the program – and that was important as we were expanding to reach more Chicagoans. It’s now something we keep in mind for all of our messaging – including public health messaging into conversations that are already happening. Zencity is what showed us that, yes, this works, this does garner more engagement than just passive messaging or passive guidance.”
Senior Aide to the Commissioner, Chicago Public Health Department