Tugging at heartstrings and purse strings

When writing a public service announcement, you need balance between information and emotion. Douglas Quenqua reports on how to find the language that works.

When writing a public service announcement, you need balance between information and emotion. Douglas Quenqua reports on how to find the language that works.

PSAs are a unique form of outreach. They're part commercial, part VNR, with just a touch of soap opera. As such, it's important to write a script that hits all the right notes. Knowing what notes to strive for - and which to avoid - is vital if you want to move your audience to action (and get your message on the air in the first place).

The primary thing separating a PSA from all other forms of outreach is the content. The goal is not solely to inform, as it is with a VNR, and it's not to sell a service or item, as it is with a commercial. Almost without exception, the goal of a PSA is to raise awareness for a problem or issue, then encourage your audience to take some form of action.

"A PSA script has to have two main components to it," says Roberta Facinelli, director of radio for Medialink. "One, it has to present a problem of some sort or attempt to raise awareness of a situation. Two, it has to give the listener a solution to that problem, something actionable they can do."

In order to make that happen, your PSA has to have the right tone. Obviously, this will differ depending on the issue you're addressing, but some things are universal. For example, it's important not to try to "sell" too hard; severe healthcare problems and social issues shouldn't be handled crudely. Also, be sure not to hit a "newsy" or strictly informative tone as you would with a press release or VNR.

"A PSA should not sound like a news brief," warns Tammy Lemley, VP at North American Networks. "When you do an ANR, you generally have some sort of breaking news, sort of a 'this just in' feel. With a PSA, you're trying to get people to pay attention to something serious and change their behavior. You're not begging, but you want to make a warm, friendly appeal. Sometimes you want to tug at their heartstrings a little."

There are a number of ways to achieve such a tone. One is to use "feeling" words, such as "heart," "health," or "caring." Beyond the text, poignant music is a surefire way to evoke emotion from the audience.

"We did an award-winning PSA for the Consumer Product Safety Commission with [folk singer] Tom Paxton singing an original song he wrote about SIDS, about putting a baby to sleep on his or her back," recalls Lemley. "It was very effective."

The tools at your disposal for tugging at those heartstrings will naturally differ depending on your medium. Television PSAs are necessarily differently scripted than radio PSAs. In the former, you can rely on visuals to communicate your message and tailor your text to that. In radio, you need to rely more on solely your words to communicate your meaning.

But the two media differ in more subtle ways, as well.

"Radio tends to be a secondary function," says Keith Hempel, president of TV Access. "When someone is listening to the radio, they're generally doing something else, as well," such as driving or cooking, "so you have to engage your listener and give him or her something to remember."

And while it's always important to stress your call to action at the end of the PSA - that last bit of information that tells the viewer/listener what website to visit to learn more or what phone number to call to order literature - it's doubly important to do so with radio. Repetition is vital in both media, but in radio, the listener obviously can't see the number or website, so be sure to include several mentions of easy-to-remember information.

"People don't listen to the radio with a pen and paper," says Facinelli, "so it's best if you have a short and sweet website like www.cancerawareness. org or something someone can remember. It's the same with the phone number. Better 1-800-MyFootHurts than a slew of numbers that are going to be hard to remember."

Regardless of which media you're writing for, keeping your PSA to a standard length is vital. Most stations run 30-second spots, but 15-second and 60-second ones are also possible. If you have the budget, it's not a bad idea to make three versions of the PSA, a 15-, 30-, and 60-second spot. If you don't have the budget for that, it's best to stick to 15.

And it's always a good idea when dealing with radio stations to include a script for the DJ to read in case the station would rather not run a PSA. In fact, Hempel says that if you're looking to reach a certain demographic, DJ scripts are significantly more effective than a standard PSA.

"If you're trying to reach males 18 to 25, the stations they listen to generally do not play recorded PSAs, so the only chance you have is that the DJ will read something," he offers. "If that's your target audience, it's crucial to have a live read."

Your target audience may also require you to produce a PSA in multiple languages. The cardinal rule in such cases is not to simply translate your English script into a different tongue. If you do so, certain colloquialisms are likely not to translate well. You could end up insulting or confusing the people you're trying to reach. It's a good idea (though many professionals admit this isn't done as often as it should be), to get a native speaker and have him or her write your script. It's the only way to be sure you're saying what you think you're saying.

Indeed, it's a rule most say is ironclad when it comes to writing PSA scripts: Get a professional to do it.

"Do not try this at home," warns Facinelli. "In my 20-plus years of experience writing PSAs, I find the majority of PR people, with all due respect, cannot write them. PR people are trained in print, and broadcast is a completely different animal. Leave it to the experts."

Technique tips

Do use an economy of emotional words. You have 30 seconds to make an emotional connection

Do include an easy-to-remember call to action

Do include a DJ script, particularly if you're trying to reach 18- to 25-year-old males

Don't simply translate an English script. Get a native speaker to write one from scratch

Don't use the same script for television and radio

Don't do it yourself. Use a professional

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