All About Public Service Announcements

The old adage about a free lunch is also true about free media—there’s no such thing. It is true that radio and television stations, as well as newspapers and magazines, will broadcast or publish public service announcements (PSAs) for free. But that doesn’t mean that PSA campaigns are free or easy.

What PSAs Are...

  • Often the only realistic opportunity for nonprofit groups to communicate a message through the mass media.
  • Considered "advertising" by media outlets that use them. That is, PSAs generally are published or broadcast in unsold advertising space and must follow the same guidelines as paid advertising.
  • Available to nonprofit and not-for-profit organizations.
  • Viewed by the public as positive and credible sources of information.

What PSAs Aren’t...

  • Free advertising. PSAs must have a public service message, not just promote an organization’s image.
  • Always inexpensive. Producing and distributing a PSA, especially for television, can be expensive, even though the air time is free. There are less expensive alternatives for delivering your message, so plan carefully.
  • Guaranteed. Broadcasters are no longer required to run PSAs to fulfill an obligation to operate in the public interest. Tough economic times have reduced the size and budgets of newspapers and magazines. Competition for PSA space is fierce, so you can’t be certain your PSA will be used. Therefore, before you launch an expensive PSA campaign, evaluate your situation and make some decisions.

Deciding to Launch a PSA Campaign

Like all ventures, there are pros and cons to a PSA campaign. To decide whether PSAs are right for your message, follow these steps:

Step 1: Refine your message. Is your message in the public interest? Can it be told in 30 seconds or less? Is it of significant interest or importance to the community? Are other groups already promoting it? Is another vehicle more appropriate for delivering it? A PSA can rally public support for a legislative goal, as long as the goal is not short-term and the message is presented in an informative (not dogmatic) manner. It’s also vital to make sure your message is presented in a way that reflects well on emergency medicine.

Step 2: Define your audience. Define, as specifically as possible, who you’re trying to reach with your message. Do you need (or want) to reach everyone, or is your message most important to a certain audience based on age, gender, or other demographics? Targeting your message will help you control the amount of money and effort expended to disseminate it.

Step 3: Identify your resources. What is your budget? Determine whether any local celebrities or influential community leaders are willing to help you with a PSA campaign. Their support can ensure success.

Step 4: Determine your medium (television, radio, or print). The audience, timing, cost, and ease of production will differ based on the medium you choose. (Television is the most expensive; radio can be the least expensive if you use scripted PSAs.) Keep in mind your target audience and your budget, and review the pros and cons of each.

Step 5: Determine the interest level of the media. PSA directors of large television stations may receive hundreds of PSAs each week. Clearly, not everyone who produces a PSA gets air time. To make sure you don’t waste a great deal of time, money, and effort, meet with media executives (e.g., PSA directors or advertising directors) before you launch your campaign. Persuade them about the importance of your message and determine whether they will air or print your PSAs.

If there is no interest, consider another vehicle to communicate your message.

Producing PSAs

Once you decide to produce a PSA, you have many decisions to make and much research to conduct.

  • Consider hiring a professional advertising firm. They will help you produce a professional product, which will involve such activities as script writing, filming or taping, obtaining a celebrity for on-camera work, editing (possibly video animation), and distributing the PSA.
  • Become familiar with how the media uses PSAs in your area. Do you often see PSAs published or broadcasted? Are they from local or national organizations? Is there a consistent "look" or type of message? Learn what your target audience is listening to, watching, and reading and what kinds of messages the media are using to appeal to this group.
  • Consider tying the PSA into a local celebration or news event. This may increase placement, but it also may limit the time frame in which your PSA can be used, so weigh all the factors carefully. One compromise is to mention a national or community tie in your cover letter or conversation with the public service director, but not in the PSA itself. Or consider pitching the PSA in conjunction with an event, such as a community health fair.
  • Explore using alternative media. It’s often easier to obtain placement in alternative media (e.g., cable television; closed-circuit television stations in hospitals, doctors. offices, and universities; newsletters and weekly newspapers) than on network television and other major media outlets. Although they may not be considered major media outlets, it may be easier to segment target audiences into specific demographics.
  • Effectively time the release of the PSA. Once accepted for airing or printing, the news media will make a decision about when, and how often, a PSA will run. For television and radio, this often is done on a "rotation" basis. Your PSA, along with others, will be assigned to run in rotation during available time slots for a specified period of time. Make sure your PSA is evergreen and contains no dated material.
  • Check with local news stations and find out whether they have health or medical segments. Targeting the appropriate news media to broadcast or publish a PSA takes additional effort, but may be the factor that ensures success.

    Request airing or publication of the PSA in the event of a last-minute advertising cancellation. Newspapers and magazines often use PSAs to .fill in. when advertising is cancelled. Therefore, supplying PSAs in various lengths and sizes can increase your chances of placement. For example, the Seconds Save Lives print PSA comes in four sizes: full-page, half- page, third-page strip, and quarter-page. If your PSA has a strong public service message and a local angle, newspapers may agree to run a seasonal or event-oriented PSA with advance notice. Keep in mind that magazines have long lead times and need materials approximately six months before publication.
  • Negotiate discount rates or obtain corporate sponsors. You may be able to negotiate discount rates and obtain corporate sponsors to provide production assistance. If your message is compelling, you may be able to enlist a local advertising agency to work with you on a pro-bono basis. If you’re able to enlist the support of a local celebrity or influential organization, you also may be able to obtain financial and other kinds of assistance.

Television PSAs

Television generally is the most sought-after PSA medium; therefore it’s the most competitive. Factors like production quality, preferred format, and proper presentation are even more important. While seasonal messages may work well for television, make sure they will be relevant for several months (e.g., summer safety). For tie-ins to specific events or holidays, such as the Fourth of July, it’s best to work directly with the station through its news or promotions department.

If possible, you may want to produce a three-length package of your PSA, to fit into 20, 30 and 60 second spots. A 30 second spot is the most often used in both television and radio. Find out from the station whether all spots can be submitted on the same videotape or whether they must be submitted on separate tapes. Your master (or original) will most likely be in one-inch or Beta format. Use this to make copies in the formats requested by stations. Do not submit your master copy.

Keep in mind that television (and radio) PSAs are unlikely to be broadcast during prime time. Many PSAs, however, are broadcast during local newscasts or daytime hours and thus reach significant audiences

Radio PSAs

Radio is often overlooked for PSAs, but has many advantages. Because radio stations cater to specific audiences, it’s easy to target your message. Overall, radio reaches a large audience inexpensively, since many stations accept print copies of PSAs (called scripts) to be read by an announcer or disc jockey.

Scripted radio PSAs should be typed in all capitals, using long em-dashes (—) instead of commas, and ellipses (...) instead of periods. Be sure the script is easy to read and understandable. Use natural, conversational language. When writing the script, read it out loud at a natural pace to hear how it will sound, and use a timer to determine its length. Indicate the PSA length at the top of the page, along with the PSA's title. (See a sample radio script in the Appendix.)

Production quality is important for pre-produced PSAs it’s best to obtain professional assistance to write the script and professional talent to read and record. Produced PSAs may be submitted on compact disc, reel-to-reel or cassette tapes. Check with stations to determine which formats they accept. You’ll need to evaluate the costs and advantages of each format when choosing what’s best for your project and budget. Whatever format you choose, your master (the original) and dubs (copies) must be professionally prepared. Always provide stations with live announcer copy as well because it gives them maximum flexibility.

Print PSAs

Print PSA campaigns have relatively low production and distribution costs. However, because there are so many possible outlets, and because placement guidelines are not as consistent as those for radio and television, it’s essential to target your media carefully. For example, most television and radio stations have a PSA director. But at newspapers and magazines, you will need to work with publishers or advertising directors. You’ll also need to provide a mix of horizontal and vertical ads in your PSA package, leaning more toward smaller sizes (2" x 7" is the most popular).

You’ll probably want to limit print PSAs to black-and-white ads. While color does not cost much more to produce, it’s more expensive to print. If you use color, you may be asked to share this cost by providing color separations. Include on the bottom of your print PSAs "published as a public service by this [newspaper; magazine]"

Distributing PSAs

In addition to developing a PSA in the appropriate format(s), you should include the following when you distribute it:

  • A brief cover letter. Explain why your organization is promoting the message, and present a compelling reason why your PSA is meaningful to the community.
  • A typed copy of the script. With television PSAs, include a storyboard (a representation of the PSA using a series of photographs paired with text). For radio, provide live announcer copy.
  • A business reply card. These usually are surveys to be completed by station staff or publishers to indicate when and how often the PSA was used, or why it wasn’t used. These will help in evaluating the effectiveness of your PSA and in planning future ones.
  • A fact sheet for stations. Explain why the message is important to the community, and include information about your Chapter and ACEP. Be sure to document statistics, and keep the material concise.
  • Proof of your Chapter’s tax status or an offer to provide this upon request. Some media will only accept PSAs from nonprofit or not-for-profit organizations.

Following Up and Evaluating PSA Effectiveness

Always send thank you letters to the stations that aired your PSA. They will appreciate it because it helps them when they are reviewed for relicensing.

It’s important to get an idea of how many people saw your PSA so you can decide whether you want to do similar campaigns in the future. You can use reply cards to track its placement. Calculate the audience you reached by checking with each media outlet to determine its reach (number of viewers or listeners) or circulation. (Current media directories at the local library also have this information.) As a general rule, you’ll receive reply cards from 3 to 5 percent of the media that actually used your PSA.

You can also do follow up calls to public service directors to determine whether your PSA was used—or why it wasn’t used. Friends, neighbors, patients, and colleagues are good informal "evaluation" tools. Chances are they’ll let you know if they’ve seen your PSA.

Note: Contact ACEP’s Public Relations Department if you would like to see some print PSAs and radio PSAs on seasonal safety tips and emergency preparedness. ACEP’s public relations staff can also provide you with technical guidance if you plan to produce your own PSAs

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