Traditional media play alone is no longer how PSA campaign success is measured, as digital media options afford additional opportunities to reach and engage audiences. And so, PR is invaluable at orchestrating broad reach and driving engagement.
"As media fragment, we're evolving," says Susan Jacobsen, SVP of PR at the Ad Council. "We're integrating PR and taking it beyond just distribution to traditional media. We [must] take advantage of all opportunities to interact with our public. There was a time when it was all about providing content. Now it's [also] about creating dialogue and engaging in conversation."
Michele Wallace, SVP of client services at Medialink, says the new-media landscape expedites the PSA-distribution process.
"[In the past for TV], we would do a mass mailing to PSA directors, call them, and wait a couple of months to get in the rotation," she notes. "Now, there are so many additional outlets that are just as relevant as, or more relevant [than], TV. We don't have to go though all that hassle anymore."
Chris Cavello, VP of specialized media at WestGlen Communications, says there are similarities between distributing PSAs online and via traditional media.
"The key is promoting to the right audience," he says. "Identify the demographic you're trying to reach and make a list of sites that have an audience profile in line with that PSA."
Understanding the target audience and influencers will inform messaging, delivery, and distribution.
"Some campaigns are targeted to parents; others to teens or youth," Jacobsen explains. "Reckless driving is a peer-to-peer message. We're not going to reach teens with [sound] bites and b-roll packages - local news isn't something they tune in to. We need to reach them where they live. That's online."
Engaging partners also helps extend reach and engagement. For a youth-reckless-driving campaign, the Ad Council partnered with Students Against Destructive Decisions, AAA, National Organizations for Youth Safety, and the Governors Highway Safety Association. Partners for the SmallSteps obesity campaign include DreamWorks, the NFL, and the LPGA.
In addition to distributing PSAs to about 33,000 media outlets, the Ad Council also uses more than a dozen new media streams, including social networking, podcasting, user-generated content, Second Life, WeeWorld, mobile content, blogging, widgets/ gadgets, e-newsletters, and ringtones.
Cumulatively, Ad Council PSAs have yielded more than half-a-million YouTube views. In addition, campaign Web sites get more than 3.5 million visits every month (excluding media targeted sites).
Jacobsen notes interactive components to PSAs provide additional ways to measure impact. She adds that analyzing where audiences receive information and how they share it also helps extend messaging.
Cavello adds that "having Internet publicists contact Webmasters at blogs and online communities is actively engaging [and] targeting audience[s]" rather than just posting PSAs and messaging and hoping the right people find it. He adds that PSAs - and all the elements that drive traffic to them - should be informative in tone.
"Don't try and sell anything," he says. "Make it news and information. We don't want them to look at it and think it's an ad."
Aside from distribution, a well-crafted story is key to broad pickup and engagement - online and in traditional media. Last year, Medialink handled a PSA for the United Spinal Association that featured Mark Zupan, US Paralympic quad rugby player, delivering the message of not parking in handicapped spaces. The PSA aired more than 700 times on TV, was sent to local news Web sites, and posted on YouTube, where it has gotten more than 6,500 views.
"It's shot like an extreme sport commercial - it's the kind of message that will stop you," Wallace says, adding that the PSA will be redistributed this year.
Ultimately, Jacobsen says you must consistently surround and engage audiences. "PR isn't just a launch vehicle," she notes. "We must carry it out over months and years."
Find outlets to reach your specific audience
Create and sustain dialogue with target audiences
Use synergistic partnerships to extend the message
Just post to sites and hope your audience finds it
Attempt to sell or use self-serving information
Create static or poorly crafted material