Cutting costs without cutting corners

While PSAs typically air for free, putting one together is far from it. Erica Iacono discovers how best to stretch the dollars both during production and after completion

While PSAs typically air for free, putting one together is far from it. Erica Iacono discovers how best to stretch the dollars both during production and after completion

Public service announcements are a useful and necessary tool for nonprofits that are trying to educate a wide audience about a particular issue. But when dealing with nonprofits, a small, or practically non-existent budget is often not too far behind. Whether it's for television or radio, however, there are ways to produce an effective, well-made PSA despite limited funds.

The first thing one should consider when producing a PSA with little money is the medium. Paula Veale, EVP of corporate communications at The Ad Council, says that one of the least expensive options is a web- banner PSA, which typically costs $5,000-$10,000.

"You can optimize the reach to a specific audience," notes Veale. Television has the most impact, she says, but is also the most expensive. "Radio is very affordable," she offers, adding that for $20,000-$30,000 one can produce two or three different creative concepts.

Although radio PSAs offer a less-expensive option than TV, there are some areas within this medium that offer opportunities for even more cost-cutting.

"Music is a very important consideration if you're working on a budget," says Roberta Facinelli, director of radio at Medialink. "There's a lot of inexpensive music you can find on the internet - some of it you can probably get for free."

Distribution is another area that often raises the cost of a radio PSA. "With 13,000 radio stations in the US, the mailing costs alone can be astronomical," Facinelli says. For clients who are looking to maximize a small budget, she suggests the option of direct-placement PSAs - when you pay for a guaranteed broadcast, rather than just spending money producing one and hoping that it gets picked up. "That's a very effective way to stretch PSA dollars," she adds.

Susan Matthews Apgood, president of News Generation, recommends sending PSAs via e-mail since most stations use MP3 technology. "That really has been a cost-saver," she says, adding that a PSA that would typically cost $10,000 to produce costs only $4,000 using this distribution method. "And we know it's getting to the right person because we're e-mailing it."

A common cost in both TV and radio PSAs is securing talent. One way to get around this cost is to ask a celebrity to donate his or her time.

"If you don't get a celebrity for free, don't use it," says Michelle Williams, director of production at Medialink. She suggests doing research to find a celebrity that has been affected by the nonprofit's cause.

Even leaders in a particular industry are an option. "You can get a well-known expert to talk for nothing if it's something that they want to talk about," says Michael Friedman, a partner at DWJ Television.

Yet celebrities aren't the only option for free talent. Facinelli says that if the PSA has a local angle, a local politician is a good spokesperson choice. Apgood adds that people within the organization could also work well. "They'd need to have a really compelling voice," she advises.

Perhaps one of the most inexpensive ways to get out a PSA message is by simply sending the PSA script to radio stations, Apgood says. In fact, many stations only do so-called readers.

"It can be very effective, especially if it's for a local area," she adds. Veale says that the same idea can be applied to television PSAs by forming a media partnership with a local news station and having the anchors read the PSA. That method, however, has its drawbacks due to its limited scope.

Even for nonprofits trying to produce a PSA on a small budget, TV is still a very real possibility. There are several ways to cut costs, both in production and distribution.

"You don't have to produce a PSA on film - you simply don't have to do that," says Ken Fry, president of business development at On the Scene Productions, which produced an Adopt US Kids PSA with first lady Laura Bush. "Better you put the funds into the distribution effort."

Jack Trammell, president of VNR1 Communications, agrees that video is the better choice when trying to save money on a PSA. "Film is at least nine times more expensive than video," he adds.

For those who still prefer the look of film, there are companies that are able to convert video production to give it the appearance of film. One such company, Filmlook, charges $600 for its proprietary process on up to eight minutes of video. VP Anna Poore says the company often works with nonprofits to negotiate price issues and even offers a free demonstration test.

Another way to save money is to produce a baseline PSA. Fry says the average television PSA can last three to five years if it's done correctly. When shooting a PSA that will later be altered, he says to consider the celebrity that was used or the clothes that were worn, so as not to date it too much.

"You just want to pay attention to those details, recognizing that there could be a five-year-use baseline for that particular PSA," Fry says. He says his company did a PSA for The Seeing Eye that cost $5,000 because it simply involved refurbishing an existing PSA by changing the voiceover, updating the music, and adding a new 800 number.

Yet a baseline PSA may not be the best choice for radio. "Whenever you start tweaking things, you have re-editing costs," says Facinelli. "You may as well do it fresh with whatever information you need."

Distribution of TV PSAs is an area where there appears to be only one viable option: mailing Betacam-SP tapes. Although satellite is much cheaper, most agree that PSA directors simply prefer tapes.

"PSA directors are not easily able to pull down satellite feeds," Trammell says. "They're not lazy; they're overwhelmed."

Even with mailing costs, there are ways to cut down. Trammell advises sending tapes through regular mail, under the media category. "PSA directors are not impressed by overnight or express mail," he says.

Ultimately, the one thing to not scrimp money on is the script. "Writing an effective PSA for broadcast is an art form," says Facinelli. "If you're going to be spending money on a PSA, make sure it's written correctly." Adds Apgood, "The bottom line with PSAs is that if you have good content, then stations are going to use the information. It has to have good content first."

Technique tips

Do consider e-mailing MP3 files for radio PSAs

Do use video over film for TV PSAs

Do produce a baseline TV PSA that can later be updated for a small cost

Don't send TV PSAs via satellite

Don't waste money overnighting TV PSA tapes

Don't scrimp money on the PSA script

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