PR TECHNIQUE: Production, Subject, Audience: getting a PSA on air

Competition to get PSAs aired is fierce, but Douglas Quenqua finds that a well-produced spot with a clear message aimed at the right audience can get a lot of airtime.

Competition to get PSAs aired is fierce, but Douglas Quenqua finds that a well-produced spot with a clear message aimed at the right audience can get a lot of airtime.

Getting your PSA on the air isn't quite what it used to be. Until 1985, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) required television stations to earmark airtime as a community service. Now it's up to the station managers -or the radio executives, or the magazine editors - to decide which PSAs, if any, will see the light of day. Luckily, there are reasons to air PSAs beyond FCC compliance. Stations can't possibly sell all the advertising time they have to fill in a typical day. Something has to fill the gaps. Coupled with the fact that TV executives feel a natural inclination to use their power for the betterment of the community from time to time, at least some PSAs are assured to get on the air. Of course, none of this guarantees that your PSA will be the one to survive the final cut. Competition is fierce. Television and radio stations, magazines, and newspapers are overrun with PSAs. They can't run them all, and even if they could, some are so dismally produced they wouldn't want to. The first trick is not to end up in that pile. Beyond that, there are some typical criteria that media decision-makers look at when deciding what to put on the air. And while you may have only so much wiggle room in tweaking the message of your spot - a Democratic advocacy group can't exactly "spin" its message for inclusion on Rush Limbaugh's show - even minor revisions can have a major impact. Just like pitching a story, the most important thing is knowing your target audience when making your PSA, and the outlets you will need to reach them. "You absolutely have to target the right outlet for your message," says Annette Minkalis, SVP of broadcast communications at West Glen Communications. "If you're trying to reach senior citizens, don't try sending your PSA to rap stations." Also bear in mind that decisions about whether to air PSAs are made at the local level, says Paula Veale, head of the corporate communications group at the Ad Council. "You want to make sure the issue is of national importance, but also has local relevance," she advises. "Safety belts, drunk driving, for instance." Veale should know. She helped create and place the new Office of Homeland Security's Ready Campaign. The PSAs debuted across the country on February 19, and within 25 hours the website,, received 2.5 million visitors. Several days later, the hotline was receiving 2,000 calls an hour from people requesting more information. How did they pull that off? Well, like anything in media, relationships had a lot to do with it. "We have people across the country in the top-25 markets doing media outreach," says Veale. Of course, not every distributor can offer that kind of service. But there are things you can do to maximize the appeal of your spot. "Anything related to health appeals to both television and radio," says Richard Strauss of Strauss Radio Strategies. Health-related issues tend to apply to a universal audience and are rarely controversial. Indeed, flirting with controversy of any kind is a good way to make sure your PSA never sees daylight. And in the world of broadcasting, controversy is pretty narrowly defined. "If there's a pro-choice rally, stations aren't likely to run a PSA for it," says Strauss. "Even the [pro-gun control] Million Mom March rally was too controversial for some." Strauss explains: "If they run one of those spots, they then feel they have to give equal time to the other side. And they don't want to get caught up in that." One of the most popular ways of getting a PSA aired is by using celebrities. If the cause fits the bill and your contacts are good, it's generally not hard to recruit a celeb or two for your spot. But be careful - not all celebrities are created equal. "Celebrities can be a misfit if they're featured on a network show, because other networks may not want to air it," warns Minkalis. "CBS won't want to air a PSA featuring Frasier." Strauss recommends making a few different versions of your PSA, so the station managers won't be concerned about it getting repetitive. "They don't want to play the same spot over and over again," he says. As evidence, Strauss' group set up a phone bank on Election Day 2002 for radio stations to call in and actually dial up their preferred "get out the vote" PSA. Everyone from civil rights leaders to former heads of state to famous entertainers had recorded brief spots, and radio execs could simply choose the one best suited to their audience and put it on the air. But the primary rule of thumb is the message: You need to have one - just one - and it should conclude with a call to action. "Sometimes [clients] have a number of messages they want to include in a single PSA," says Minkalis, which will not only keep your PSA off the air, but stifle its impact once it reaches the audience. The PSA should make it clear precisely what you're advocating, and conclude with a way that people can do something, learn more, or get involved, such as a 1-800 number or a web address. Minkalis' group is predicting a major uptick in demand for PSAs should America proceed with its plans in Iraq. "The feeling we're getting is that advertisers may pull back [in case of invasion], which would mean a boon for nonprofits, because station managers will need to fill those commercial spots with something," she says. It may sound morbid or simply callous to take advantage of war to get your PSA on the air, but if it's the right message at the appropriate time, it's the viewer who will ultimately benefit. "Some topics that might prove helpful right now are mental health, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, plus spots on patriotism, armed forces, and volunteerism," says Minkalis. These are the things that the community will truly need should we go to war. And regardless of timing, the most effective message for a PSA is always the one that has the community's best interest at heart. ----- Technique tips Do tailor the PSA to your target audience and the media outlet best suited to meet them Do include a call to action followed by instructions on how to act Do consider providing more than one version of your PSA Don't include more than one key message in a single spot Don't use celebrities associated with a single television show or network Don't try and get national exposure all at once - PSAs are a local racket

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