PR TECHNIQUE: PSAs - Making airwaves with effective PSAs. A PSA maybe poignant, but it has to compete for commercial space. Sara Calabrolooks at what makes for an effective PSA, and how to get it on air

Unfortunately for those who produce and distribute public service announcements (PSAs), the days are gone when TV and radio stations were required to run the not-for-profit advertisements. The Telecom Act of 1996 officially granted TV and radio stations the right to operate without airing PSAs.

Unfortunately for those who produce and distribute public service announcements (PSAs), the days are gone when TV and radio stations were required to run the not-for-profit advertisements. The Telecom Act of 1996 officially granted TV and radio stations the right to operate without airing PSAs.

Despite these changes in legislation, most stations still make an effort to be community-minded, and PSAs can come in handy as fillers of empty commercial space. However, with limited air time and no obligation to run them, PSAs need to be top-notch to get broadcast.

With an overwhelming volume of PSAs coming in to radio and TV stations each day, it only takes one reason for broadcasters to deem your production unworthy of airtime: Irrelevant subject matter, misused celebrities, political overtones/controversial issues, poor production, and inappropriate timing are among the many reasons broadcasters choose to shelf a PSA.

"The announcements need to fit in the context of their surroundings, which is commercials,

says Ron Piedrahita, VP of US production at Medialink.

With the possibility of being "sandwiched between Nike and McDonald's," the key is to create PSAs that are up to par, even on a limited budget.

Immediately following September 11, PSA airtime became practically non-existent. With stations running continuous news coverage, there weren't even breaks allotted for paid advertising, let alone PSAs that rarely get airtime during prime-time hours in less turbulent times.

Almost six months later, the PSA market is back on its feet, but the climate has changed. With newfound feelings of patriotism and family values, Americans are seeing more announcements that focus on people and relationships.

This is a key consideration. "When faced with one PSA on the environment and another on family issues, broadcasters are going to go with family every time,

says Lynn Medcalf, EVP and co-founder of News Generation, an Atlanta-based distributor of radio PSAs.

Of course, tapping into public mood requires research. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA) tugged at the family heartstrings in its recently launched series of TV and internet PSAs - part of an educational campaign responding to the discovery that teen Ecstasy use has risen an astonishing 71% since 1999. Through research prior to production, the PDFA discovered that most teenagers had a false notion of what effects Ecstasy has on the body, and the seriousness of the substance known as the "love drug."

"Fear was not the way to go. We needed to peel back the reputation of Ecstasy and call into question this feeling of 'love,'

says Steve Dnistrian, EVP/director of public affairs at the PDFA. Understanding the audience's attitudes beforehand allowed the PDFA to communicate the message effectively.

When speaking to parents, the other target audience, "we needed to be emotionally charging,

says Dnistrian. "Most had heard of Ecstasy, but didn't really know what it was. Many had the attitude, 'It would never happen to my kid.'

The PDFA produced a PSA featuring the parents of a woman who died as a result of Ecstasy use at age 21, forcing the message to hit home and prove that it can happen to anyone's child.

Audience attitudes vary from region to region, however. It is imperative that all distributors are mindful of where they send PSAs, because regional and socioeconomic factors are taken into consideration at broadcasting stations. In West Glen Communications' 2000 annual survey of television public affairs directors on the use of PSAs, 76% of respondents said that the most critical factor in deciding to air a PSA is whether or not the message is relevant to the audience; 85% of radio stations agreed that this is the primary concern when it comes to choosing which PSAs to air.

Distributors should remember that stations, although part of a larger national network, are not going to run a PSA that has no meaning locally.

Jeff Clark, promotion director at WMTV-NBC in Madison, WI, points to a PSA he received on crime, and could not use because of irrelevant subject matter. "It was a decent PSA, but crime just is not a pertinent issue in Madison."

By keeping abreast of local news, distributors can avoid wasted costs from sending PSAs to regions or demographics that cannot relate to the topic. It can also give them a new angle to follow up and repitch a PSA that has already been sent. Clark recalls a PSA by the Ad Council that he decided to air. "It was a message about gun safety, received during hunting season.

he says. "There had recently been a hunting accident that took place in Madison, so it made sense."

Once the appropriate research and production steps have been taken, delivery and pitching techniques can be critical. Primarily, distributors should make sure that PSAs are sent to broadcasters in a usable format. For radio, CD is the preferred format, and the majority of TV stations prefer Beta tapes. When packaging PSAs, the more detail you can include, the better.

Information such as the length, stop time, a brief summary, and contact details limit the work broadcasters have to do in order to run your PSA.

It's also a good idea to include a reply card so broadcasters can give feedback without being bombarded by phone calls. Follow-up is a necessary part of the distribution process, but it should be kept to minimum. Prepitching, on the other hand, is seen as an annoyance by broadcasters. It is more effective to put your energy into pitching on the back end, so broadcasters can make the association when they actually have the material in front of them. It's also helpful to have a reason for your follow-up, such as reminding them of the timeliness of your subject matter. Or, repitch the story from another angle if you have learned of recent local activity in that particular area that could tie in with your PSA.


1 Do know your target audience's attitude toward the subject prior to production. Without understanding what the audience knows or doesn't know, it's impossible to set the right tone or give appropriate information

2 Do be aware of timing. Sending out a PSA on the importance of flu shots in the middle of July will not be effective

3 Do ensure that a celebrity appearance in a PSA makes sense. Spokespeople lose their luster if there is no connection between them and the topic

1 Don't distribute PSAs to just anyone. Make sure that the subject matter is relevant to the region, demographic, and type of media you are sending materials to

2 Don't assume everyone is educated and engrossed in the topic. Keep it simple. The last thing you want to do is talk over people's heads

3 Don't give broadcasters limitations. Poor production quality and an unclear message will only give stations reasons not to run your PSA.

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