Getting PSA exposure during airtime crunch

Sherri Deatherage Green finds out how an election year, up-front commitments, and government-funded public-service messages affect the landscape for PSAs.

Sherri Deatherage Green finds out how an election year, up-front commitments, and government-funded public-service messages affect the landscape for PSAs.

Television PSA producers might have enjoyed a silver lining during the recession - fewer spots sold meant more free airtime. But the recovering economy and the political season likely will change all that this year. "We're probably going to go back to a more normal use of PSAs, which means it's hard to get your PSAs exposed," says Tim Ryan, Washington SVP of Sawyer Miller Advertising at Weber Shandwick. Broadcasters claim elections won't have much effect on PSA opportunities, but some PR professionals do not agree. "Historically, the Ad Council has not seen our overall donated media go down in an election year," says Peggy Conlon, president and CEO of the Ad Council. But while PSA time might level out by year's end, free placements can be hard to get at the height of campaign season. "This will play out geographically," Ryan explains. "It won't be in all states at all times." For example, Iowa and New Hampshire probably weren't good places to pitch PSAs in late January. In highly contested states, airtime might remain tight for a few weeks after an election as advertisers buy time they couldn't get during campaigns. Such shortages usually are short-lived, Conlon says. The worst might be over for the primaries, which grow less contested with each state Sen. John Kerry wins. Political ads probably won't spike again until elections heat up around Labor Day, predicts Mark Dembo, president of West Glen Communications in New York. Time will be tightest in battleground states, so using 2000 as a model, placing PSAs in Texas might be easier than in Florida. Organizations seeking airtime in early fall should distribute PSAs as early as July, Dembo advises. "The sooner they can get their spots into the stations' rotations, the more likely they are to get whatever airtime might be available." For decades, the Federal Communications Commission required stations to publish public service logs to renew broadcast licenses. But logging requirements were abolished nearly 20 years ago, and some argue the practice of providing free airtime has since waned. Ned Barnett, a sole practitioner in Las Vegas, says the federal government has weakened the PSA tradition by paying for military recruitment and drug abuse prevention ads. "Today, it's harder than ever before to get free PSAs," Barnett laments. Often, public service advertisers buy as many spots as they can afford and negotiate for more airings. They usually pay the lowest rates, which stations also must offer to political candidates, says Rob Allyn, president of Dallas' Allyn & Associates. Thus, heavy political advertising might shrink the availability of paid public service time slots, but Allyn thinks most stations set aside separate allotments for PSAs. "Ultimately, the stations have a public service commitment over and above anything they sell," Allyn says. Another development that might affect the public service world this year is the Ad Council's effort to negotiate up-front PSA commitments from large media firms (see PRWeek, February 9). Some think the Ad Council's new model might present challenges for smaller nonprofits not aligned with the agency, but others disagree. "It really helps all nonprofit organizations because it gives more prominence to public service advertising," Dembo says. The Ad Council hopes up-front commitments will net 25% of the stations' available PSA inventory, leaving plenty of airtime for other campaigns, Conlon says. Meanwhile, the ongoing debate over media ownership rules might give local nonprofits an ace in the hole. Media firms seem sensitive to critics' claims that consolidation might hinder the diversity of programming. Broadcasters say final decisions about PSAs are made locally. "Our stations are locally programmed and operated, and, as such, it is most appropriate for the local managers to select the campaigns," says Lisa Dollinger, Clear Channel's SVP of worldwide communications. Yet some view backing by the Ad Council or the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) as vital for getting national PSAs noticed. The Ad Council distributes about 50 PSA campaigns each year, while the NAB sends out 200 to stations that aren't owned and operated by the networks. "Having an endorsement from the Ad Council and complying with their current theme is almost a requirement now if you want to see your PSA surface on the air," says Peter Himler, a managing director in Burson-Marsteller's office in New York. Many view partnerships with industry associations, local stations, or corporations as the key to successful PSA campaigns. Barnett particularly believes in finding corporate sponsors. Co-branding campaigns with local stations is a longstanding but growing trend. While such PSAs might appear on only one station, they often get more total exposure than spots peddled to all outlets in a market. "It allows the station to fulfill another objective," Allyn notes. "They get their personalities promoted within the PSA." Get-out-the-vote campaigns obviously will find their place this year, and experts predict healthcare subjects will remain popular, too. October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and, although that falls during the advertising zenith for the presidential election, Dembo thinks local walk-a-thons will get plenty of promotion. But PSAs with political content should be avoided. "If there is a campaign that has political figures in it, particularly if they are running for office, you won't get donated media," Conlon warns. Also, those planning to run campaigns through purchased and donated placements might check with their attorneys about political content restricted by election-reform laws. NAB corporate communications SVP Dennis Wharton says his agency avoids controversial campaigns yearly, not just during election periods. "We generally side with PSAs that aren't going to land us on the front page of the major newspapers, questioning why the NAB is sponsoring something that's sort of a hot-button issue," he says. The best way to get exposure for PSA campaigns when ad space is tight might be to focus on radio, print, and online media, which generally have more space/time to give, says Jessica Schwartz Hahn, assistant VP at Widmeyer Communications in Washington, DC. "I wouldn't say always avoid television, but it might come in third on the list," she says. ----- Technique tips Do begin pitching your PSA well before peak political campaign periods Do seek ties with broadcast stations, corporate sponsors, or industry associations Do follow up with PSA directors, and let them know how your issue impacts their community Don't expect free airtime for PSAs featuring politicians or political content in an election year Don't launch campaigns in political battleground states between Labor Day and Election Day Don't focus solely on TV. You may have better luck placing PSAs on radio, in print, or on the web

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