Everyone is learning how to adapt to a socially distant world, from maintaining friendships via online hangouts to attending virtual events and celebrations.

For some with chronic conditions, they have spent their whole lives social distancing and avoiding germs. Area 23 tapped into the social distance expertise of teens with cystic fibrosis to help other teens adapt to the new world.

“An issue that came up in the early days of lockdown was getting teens to comply with lockdown orders and also maintain mental health and positivity,” said Tim Hawkey, chief creative officer at Area 23. “We were looking at teens whose varsity season or prom was canceled. We issued a brief internally to take this on. One of our creatives who used to work on a CF pharma brand made an instant connection. Right away, he thought, these kids with CF have been doing this their whole lives.”

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a genetic lung and digestive system condition. Patients often experience frequent bacterial infections or difficulty breathing due to the condition and often miss school or work because of the illness.

Area 23 already had a pro bono relationship with cystic fibrosis nonprofit Claire’s Place Foundation. The team took the idea to Claire’s Place and asked for input and connections to teenagers with CF.

The result was the Social Distance Squad.

Area 23 kicked off the effort in early April by going directly to virtual classrooms. The agency worked with schools to bring in teens with cystic fibrosis to tell their stories and hold Q&As about social distancing. 

“Teachers were desperate for content, it was very easy to strike up a number of Zoom classroom engagements,” Hawkey said. “They would have direct conversations with the students, tell their story and answer all sorts of questions from these kids.”

The agency then began scaling the effort up, creating a series of videos and reaching out to advocacy organizations to be part of the campaign. Five organizations joined the effort, including Claire’s Place, Piper’s Angels, Attain Health, Roadmap to CF and the Boomer Esiason Foundation. They also encouraged the teens with CF in the videos to share the content on their own channels.

Going forward, Area 23 is looking into corporate sponsorships and working with teen influencers to expand the campaigns reach even further, Hawkey said.

Early in the campaign development stage, Hawkey recalled bringing a list of potential topics to a focus group of teens with CF and being told, “your list doesn’t even scratch the surface.”

“We were talking about how to keep from getting bored or how to maintain social distance,” Hawkey said. “There was an enthusiastic outpouring of ideas from these kids. They have been employing strategies their entire life in order to maintain social distance and isolation. They have the coping mechanisms in place to stay upbeat and positive. Most of the ideas came from the kids, like dating. Several kids had tips on how to meet people from social distance or maintain relationships through social distance. One kid talked about doing a remote prom even before lockdown. He couldn’t go to prom so he went via an iPad.”

The Area 23 team also tapped into its group of summer interns for ideas. The interns helped the team decide how the content would look, with key learnings that it shouldn’t be overproduced and it should incorporate the visual language of social media, like stickers or memes.

Hawkey said the low production value helped the team make even more content on a tight budget.

“It’s not fun realizing how damn old you are,” he said. “Every time we have a meeting about this, it’s so important that we all remind ourselves that we are not the target and we have no idea what’s going on in our target’s mind. Having that self awareness is key.”