While PSAs are a philanthropic medium that companies tend to keep quiet about, there are ways for corporate sponsors to gain recognition.
As far as corporate/nonprofit relationships go, the one between King Oscar sardines and the Women's Sports Foundation is perhaps not in the realm of Yoplait's Save Lids to Save Lives. But in the context of a PSA, Ray Salo says the partnership worked beautifully.
His company, Salo Productions, recently produced a successful spot about Olympic swimmer Katrina Radke's struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome and how exercise, along with an Omega-3-rich diet, can help. At one point, the spot shows Radke opening a can of King Oscar sardines for lunch. "It's a very fine line, and it can be done right," says Salo.
Although a corporate entity's involvement with a PSA is traditionally supposed to be kept quiet, Salo says there are subtle ways to indicate the relationship without going over the line.
"If a for-profit is going to do a PSA tied in with a nonprofit, the for-profit has to realize that [it's] competing for free airtime, so it's not a commercial," he says. "It has to be informative rather than promotional. It's a matter of tone and how it's written."
If the corporate entity wants recognition in the PSA, Salo says, the clues must be visual, not verbal. He usually flashes a corporate logo and both the corporate and nonprofit websites at the end of the PSA. Salo emphasizes that this type of PSA still needs to send the right message, typically about health, lifestyle, or safety.
Still, many believe the PSA vehicle should not be used for corporate branding of any kind. Laura Pair, director of editorial services for News Broadcast Network, says that even a logo and a website can send the wrong message to PSA directors.
"Once you get your logo on the PSA, there's a question in the mind of the PSA director," she says. "Actually, there isn't a question. They know they have given free airtime to someone who's not entirely philanthropic."
Instead, Pair suggests using the end tag of the PSA for subtle branding opportunities. The PSA can feature a toll-free phone number and website for the nonprofit, and that website can then link to the website of the corporate sponsor.
Another option, she says, is to use a celebrity spokesperson for the PSA and then pitch it as an entertainment news story for the appropriate outlet. The celebrity can act as a hook to get the name of the company, and its relationship with the nonprofit, out into the media.
Like Pair, Larry Thomas, SVP at MultiVu, discourages overt branding with PSAs.
"There are certainly ways that corporations can extend their brand identity through PSAs," suggests Thomas, "but ultimately what I would say is, don't try to walk that fine line. The downside is too strong, and you come across as disingenuous."
Thomas says the use of other PR tools - VNRs, ANRs, and RMTs (radio media tours) - before and after the PSA's airing can indicate the corporate involvement.
"If you've got the budget, use VNRs or ANRs to seed the market," he says. "When the PSA comes out, you have some mind share."
For those who decide to test the branding waters with a PSA, Thomas says it is important to have an obvious correlation with a cause, such as a CEO or spokesperson who suffers from the ailment associated with the nonprofit's mission. "If there's a genuine tie-in, then it's easier to pull off," he says.
Another way to promote corporate involvement is by purchasing commercial airtime, says Michelle Williams, director of production at Medialink. She says firms can try to air commercials around the block of time that the PSA might be aired. But she agrees that VNRs might be the best choice because stations know exactly what they are, and it is easier to do branding with them. "That gets much more airplay," she adds.
In the case of radio PSAs, Richard Strauss, president of Strauss Radio Strategies, says there are some tricks to adding in corporate branding. For example, he says, if a company attaches its name to a specific event, such as the Fannie Mae Foundation Walkathon, when the event is mentioned in the PSA, the company is getting its own message out there at the same time.
Lynn Harris Medcalf, EVP and cofounder of News Generation, agrees with this tactic. Sponsoring an event, such as a Toys for Tots drive, she says, will allow a company to mention its name in the PSA, especially if it's a drop-off site. Another idea, she says - although it requires a much larger undertaking - is to establish a philanthropic arm of the company, as is the case with Johnson & Johnson and McDonald's.
Although Strauss says there is more flexibility in radio, the PSA must retain the inherent qualities of a PSA. "There's a feel test," he says. "Does it feel like a PSA or does it feel like a commercial?"
Strauss says that if a PSA is targeted to a specific audience, it is easier to get a little bit of corporate messaging in there. He also suggests tying the PSA into seasonal events.
Strauss recently produced a series of PSAs for Walgreens, targeted especially for the Atlanta market. The PSAs gave health-related seasonal advice; one segment provided information on skin cancer prevention and monitoring. Each PSA began and ended with the line, "From the Walgreens 24-hour pharmacy, this is your Healthlanta medical minute."
Ultimately, it is important to remember that the true purpose of a PSA is to get out an informative message from a nonprofit to the public.
"If it doesn't live up to those standards," Medcalf explains, "then a PSA is not the thing to do."
Do make mentions of corporate involvement in a PSA subtle, such as including a website or toll-free phone number for the corporate sponsor
Do use VNRs, ANRs, SMTs, and RMTs as a way to publicize corporate involvement in a PSA
Do localize radio PSAs; it will increase the chances of being aired, even with subtle corporate mention
Don't give verbal acknowledgment of the corporate sponsor
Don't stray from the standard PSA messages of health, lifestyle, and safety
Don't form a partnership with a nonprofit for the sole purpose of corporate branding. PSA directors will not air anything that contains an overtly commercial message