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  • What is a public service announcement?

  • When should you consider using PSA's?

  • How do you write a PSA?

  • How do you produce a PSA?

  • How do you get your PSA on the air?

  • How can you tell if your PSA was effective?

"This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?"

"A mind is a terrible thing to waste."

"Friends don't let friends drive drunk."

"You could learn a lot from a dummy."

How many of these phrases ring a bell? These widely recognized slogans from national public service announcement campaigns by the Ad Council have become a part of our culture.

While the above examples were all big-budget campaigns, your own organization's public service announcements (also known as PSA's) -- even if they're a small, locally-produced campaign -- can be a great inexpensive way to get your message out to the public.

What is a public service announcement?

Public service announcements, or PSA's, are short messages produced on film, videotape, DVD, CD, audiotape, or as a computer file and given to radio and television stations. Generally, PSA's are sent as ready-to-air audio or video tapes, although radio stations (especially community or public stations, such as campus radio or National Public Radio affiliates) sometimes prefer a script that their announcers can read live on the air. They can be done very simply with a single actor reading or performing a message, or they can be elaborate, slickly-produced messages with music, dramatic story-lines, and sound or visual effects.

Broadcast media -- radio and television -- are required by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to serve "in the public interest." Most stations use PSA's as one of the ways they meet this requirement. While they aren't required to donate a fixed percentage of air time per day to PSA's, stations do have to state in their licensing and renewal applications how much air time they plan to devote to PSA's. Most stations donate about a third of their commercial spots to non-commercial causes; in other words, if a station has 18 minutes of commercials in a given hour, six minutes of that will probably be devoted to PSA's.

Advantages of PSA's

  • PSA's are generally inexpensive. Since the airtime is donated, your only cost is production. If you keep to a tight budget, you can make PSA's very cheaply.
  • Most stations will allow you to include a telephone number for more information in your PSA.
  • PSA's tend to be really effective at encouraging the audience to do something -- for example, call a phone number for more information, use condoms, or have your pet spayed or neutered.
  • PSA's can raise awareness of your issue.

Limitations of PSA's

  • Because PSA's depend on donated time, you'll often find you're not able to get them run on all the media outlets you'd like to, or you may find yourself at the mercy of station staff members who may be overworked, arbitrary, or personally opposed to your group's work. PSA's are often run as "filler" in the middle of the night or during other times when only a few people are listening or watching.
  • The competition among non-profit groups for free air time is very stiff -- depending on the market, there could be hundreds of other groups vying for time on any given station. You may not be able to count on getting a lot of air time for your PSA's.
  • Stations tend to shy away from "controversial" PSA's. If your group focuses on an issue that is the subject of heated public debate -- anti-abortion advocacy or gay rights, for example -- you may have a hard time convincing stations to run your PSA.
  • Stations may not track and report when your PSA's have been played, but they will do this for paid advertising.
  • PSA's do require a bit of work on your part, and they tend to be ineffective at influencing policy. Consider them more when you have a specific action you want the viewer or listener to take, or coordinate with other activities designed to influence people's behavior.

When should you consider using PSA's?

Here are some guidelines for deciding when you might want to incorporate PSA's into your media campaign. Keep in mind that you don't necessarily have to meet all of these criteria -- this is just a list of times that PSA's may be a good idea for your group:

  • When your group is a nonprofit organization
  • When you have a specific announcement to make (for example, the time and place of a meeting or event).
  • When you have a clear and easy-to-understand issue
  • When you're requesting a very specific action
  • When you have good contacts for getting your PSA on the air
  • When you have good writing and production skills
  • When you've previously used PSA's with success
  • When it's going to be part of a larger media campaign

How do you write a PSA?

Decide upon and clarify the purpose of your PSA. What are your goals here? What do you want to accomplish by putting a PSA on the air? And for that matter, why use a PSA instead of other publicity outlets?

  • Target your audience. What type of people are you hoping to reach through your PSA? This will help you focus in both your desired media outlets, and also upon your PSA content.
  • Survey your media outlets to best reach that audience. That means that you need to know what media outlets are available in your particular geographic area.
  • Prioritize your media outlets. That is, you need to know which outlets your target audience is most likely to prefer. For example, is your audience more likely to tune in to the 24-hour country music station than to the one that plays mostly golden oldies? If so, then you point toward the country music outlet.

Also, when does your audience tend to tune in to these outlets? For example, is your desired audience a bunch of early risers? Then you'd probably want to reach them early in the morning, as opposed to late at night, if you possibly can. However, don't count on being able to pick the time of day for your PSA to run. That's why getting to know your media personnel is so important -- it's easier to ask a favor of someone you know.

Approach your preferred media outlets. Here you want to make a personal contact, as best you can, directly with the station manager in small markets, or with the person who's responsible for choosing PSA's for broadcast. A phone call is good; a personal meeting is better. Find out a bit about their requirements for PSA's -- what format they want to receive them in, preferred length, when to submit them, etc. See "How do you get your PSA on the air?" later on in this section for more detailed information on how to go about this.

Write your PSA. The actual writing waits until this point, because you first need to know your audience, your markets, and their policies.

Key points to remember about the writing:

  • Because you've only got a few seconds to reach your audience (often 30 seconds or less), the language should be simple and vivid. Take your time and make every word count. Make your message crystal clear.
  • The content of the writing should have the right "hooks" -- words or phrases that grab attention -- to attract your audience (again, you need to know who your audience is). For example, starting your PSA off with something like, "If you're between the ages of 25 and 44, you're more likely to die from AIDS than from any other disease."
  • The PSA should usually (though maybe not 100% of the time) request a specific action, such as calling a specific number to get more information. You ordinarily want listeners to do something as a result of having heard the PSA.

Getting ready to write your PSA:

Choose points to focus on. Don't overload the viewer or listener with too many different messages. List all the possible messages you'd like to get into the public mind, and then decide on the one or two most vital points. For example, if your group educates people about asthma, you might narrow it down to a simple focus point like, "If you have asthma, you shouldn't smoke."

Brainstorm. This is also a good time to look at the PSA's that others have done for ideas. Get together with your colleagues to toss around ideas about ways you can illustrate the main point(s) you've chosen. If possible, include members of your target group in this process. If you're aiming your PSA at African-American youth, for example, be sure to invite some African-American youth to take part in brainstorming.

Check your facts. It's extremely important for your PSA to be accurate. Any facts should be checked and verified before sending the PSA in. Is the information up to date? If there are any demonstrations included in the PSA, are they done clearly and correctly?

Identify a "hook". A hook is whatever you use to grab the listener or viewer's attention. How are you going to keep them from changing the channel or leaving the room or letting their attention drift when your PSA comes on? A hook can be something funny, it can be catchy music, it can be a shocking statistic, it can be an emotional appeal -- whatever makes the listener or viewer interested enough to watch or listen to the rest of your PSA. For example, if you're aiming for Hispanic listeners, your hook might be to have your PSA use Tejano or salsa background music.

Now you're ready to write your script!

Basic guidelines for PSA format:

Most stations prefer 30-second spots. If you're writing a television PSA, you'll want to keep the announcer's copy 2 or 3 seconds shorter than the entire length of the PSA. Television stations run on a much tighter, more rigid schedule than radio stations, and you may find that if your PSA runs exactly 30 seconds, for example, the station may sometimes cut off the end.

Length of PSA 10 seconds 15 seconds 20 seconds 30 seconds
Number of words 20-25 words 30-35 words 40-50 words 60-75 words

Your copy should be typed, double or triple-spaced.

You can put more than one spot per page for the shorter ones, but with 30 and 60 second spots, put them on separate pages.

The top of the sheet should list:

  • how long the PSA should run (i.e., "FOR USE: November 18 - December 20" or "Imnediate: TFN" [til further notice])
  • length of the PSA
  • what agency or group the PSA is for, and
  • title of the PSA.

The script itself should be split into two columns; the left column will list all directions, camera angles, sound effects, etc. and the right column lists all dialogue.

Don't use hyphenations or abbreviations.

The bottom of the sheet should be marked with "###", the standard ending used in releases to the media to let the media outlet know there are no further pages to the script or story.

Your script can be sent as "live copy"-- a simple script that's ready to be read by a live on-air announcer -- or as a pre-recorded tape. While live copy is inexpensive and is used extensively in radio, television stations rarely use live copy scripts.

Below is an example of a live copy PSA script for radio. Two longer scripts -- one for radio and one for television -- are shown with the other examples at the end of this section.

Sample radio PSA script -- live copy

Use: Imnediate: TFN
Time: 20 seconds
Agency: Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation
Title: "Day of Compassion"

Main Point: Day of Compassion will be held June 20 Fifteen years ago, most people thought it couldn't happen to them. Today we know better. AIDS has taken more than 320,000 lives nationwide. It could happen to someone you love. Turn on your radio or TV on June 20th and experience a Day of Compassion. It could save lives. Be aware. Be safe. Be compassionate.

###

If you can get help from an outside professional or somebody who has radio/television experience, this is a good time to do so. He or she can review your work for you and offer suggestions. It won't take much time, since PSA's are so short.

Pretesting your script is always a good idea. Find some people who are members of your target audience, show them or let them read the script for the PSA, and ask them for critical feedback. In addition to members of your target audience, you might also want to ask health professionals and activists, teachers, and religious leaders to take part in pretesting. It doesn't have to be a big, hairy, formal process. Whatever amount of time you spend pretesting will almost always pay off in greater effectiveness of your PSA.

Now you have a script that's ready to go! If you're just making live copy scripts, you can skip the next part ("How do you produce a PSA?") and go directly on to "How do you get your PSA on the air?" If you're going to be sending in a pre-recorded tape, read on!

How do you produce a PSA?

If you're planning on sending in a pre-recorded PSA, decide whether you should produce it yourself or bring in outside help at this point. Generally, it's not a good idea to produce it yourself unless you're sure you can do a professional-quality job. Everyone has seen or heard at least a few badly produced local PSA's in their time; you know it can negatively affect your opinion of an organization. If you can't be certain you can do a genuinely good job of it, you shouldn't attempt to produce your own PSA.

But don't despair! You can have a well-made PSA without going to the expense of paying a professional television or radio production company. Find out if anyone in your group has broadcasting experience. Approach area advertising agencies and production companies to see if any of them would donate personnel, studio time, or equipment for your PSA. Consider tapping into broadcasting students at any area universities. They're hungry for the experience and most upperclassmen will have had some formal training and experience.

As a last resort, you can pay a professional production or advertising company to produce your script. You may be able to get a reduced rate for nonprofit agencies, so be sure to ask about that possibility.

Tips for radio:

  • Finding professional announcers is helpful but not vital. Volunteers at community or campus radio stations, people who read for the blind, and storytellers are all experienced in doing voiceover work. Just keep your target group in mind when choosing actors. People tend to respond better to those who sound like they might be their approximate age and background.
  • In radio, your audience is usually doing at least one other thing in addition to listening; driving, reading, partying, studying, working, gardening, cleaning, etc. It's important to grab the audience's attention quickly and hold it.
  • Try to use short, arresting sentences aimed directly at the listener at the beginning of the PSA to help grab their attention. For example: "Your heart could be a ticking time bomb. Has one or both of your parents had heart disease? If so, your chances of developing heart disease later in life are a lot higher than for most people."

Tips for television:

  • You have to tell the TV staff exactly what you want them to film. You must describe each shot in writing, and give the correct dialogue to go with that shot.
  • Drama clubs, community theater groups, and the drama departments at your local high schools and universities are great places to find talent, and most of the members are eager for experience.
  • Consider using slide/announcer spots, because they're cheap and easy to produce. In a slide/announcer spot, an announcer reads the script while 35-mm slides are used for the visual portion of the PSA.
  • If you're producing a television spot yourself, make up a storyboard for your script before you begin shooting. A storyboard shows sketches or photos of each individual spot in a television piece. It helps the director figure out how the entire piece will flow and what sort of camera angles and staging need to be set up.
  • Avoid special effects. They're generally costly, and usually only distract viewers from the message.

Chances are good that you can get help from your local community access cable TV station. Many of them also offer free production courses, which could be useful to you if you might be producing videos on a regular basis.

Many local cable TV stations also do "scrolls," or community-calendar type announcements. Your message might also be included as one of these. The announcement is often 25-50 words of copy, sometimes even less, and is often written similarly to a radio PSA. Check with your cable TV station for details.

Overall tips

If you can afford to, make multiple PSA's so that the same one doesn't play over and over. You don't want your audience to get sick of your message, so having different versions of the same message, or several different PSA's with different messages, is one way to mix things up and keep their attention. Keep it brief and simple! Focus what you want the viewer to do or remember after they see or hear your PSA. Stick to having only two or three main characters in the PSA to help your audience focus on the message. Let the actors give you feedback and make suggestions on the script. They will appreciate that you take their input seriously, and they often have great ideas. When information changes (for example, with AIDS PSA's, where new treatments are being developed all the time), change your PSA's as soon as possible. Contact the station(s) playing it and get them to stop running old material, and produce new PSA's with updated information as quickly as you can. Talk with your actors and production staff about payment or donated time, and have a written agreement in place before production begins.

How do you get your PSA on the air?

Different stations have different policies for PSA's. For example, in some small communities, you can just call in your PSA by telephone. Other stations require the PSA script, while others require a fully produced, ready-to-air version. Find out ahead of time what their requirements are -- never send a PSA without knowing the rules and guidelines of the station first. Stations also vary around maximum PSA length and minimum advance notice. In other words, you want to know what the local ground rules are before you take to the field.

Radio

It's generally a lot easier to get a PSA run on the radio than on television. Once you're familiar with submission requirements, send your PSA, following station guidelines. This will normally include a cover letter, along with any specific requests or instructions.

Even if you've already talked to your contact on the phone or in person you should take care to write a good cover letter when you send your PSA in. Mention previous conversations with the contact, and any specific air times you've discussed. Be sure to list any and all enclosed items or additional pages. And, most importantly, be appreciative!

PSA Cover Letter

Anytown Teen Pregnancy Prevention Coalition
789 Walnut Drive, Suite 88 * Anytown, PA 12345 * (215) 555-5678

October 10, 1998

Mai-Lin Huang
Public Affairs Director
KPSA 98.6 Radio
1234 Broadcast Lane
Anytown, PA 12345

Dear Ms. Huang:

As per our telephone conversation on October 8, enclosed please find three index cards with ready-to-read announcer PSA's for our teen parents speaker's bureau program, as well as four cassette tapes with the following:

  • Five 10-second spots
  • Three 15-second spots
  • Three 30-second spots
  • Two 60-second spots

As per your request, all of the 10-second spots are on a single tape, all the 15-second spots are on another, and so on. For your reference, I have also enclosed copies of the scripts for the taped spots.

Thank you for taking the time to explain KPSA's policies and requirements on submitting public service announcements when I spoke with you on Tuesday. I look forward to hearing the first of our PSA's during Jammin' Jeska's Morning Madhouse on October 22,. If I'm mistaken about this date, please let me know.

We feel confident that with KPSA's support we'll have a significant impact on teen pregnancy in our community. Again, thank you very much for your assistance and guidance in getting these important messages on the air.

Sincerely,

Alicia Rodriguez
Director

Anytown Teen Pregnancy Prevention Coalition

Enclosures:

  • Index cards (3)
  • Cassette tapes (4)
  • PSA scripts (4 pages)

Make sure you keep your own copies of everything! Media outlets receive a lot of PSA's; misplacing or losing them is common, so be prepared to provide a new copy if necessary. Follow up with a phone call a few days later.

Television

Getting a PSA shown on television is highly competitive. It helps to make a personal contact with someone on the station's staff. Call to find out who is in charge of selecting which PSA's are run. Depending on the size of the market and the structure of the particular station you're dealing with, your best contact person could be the public affairs director, traffic director, program director, promotions manager, or even the station manager.

Once you know who your contact should be, call and ask if you can make an appointment to talk about the possibility of airing your PSA. Be on time, and bring an air-ready copy of the PSA and the script as well as information on your organization or initiative. It might help to bring proof of your group's tax exempt status as well. If your contact is unfamiliar with your group, you may have to spend the first few minutes explaining who you are and what you do.

Explain how the PSA fits into your overall media campaign, the goals of the campaign, and how running it at the times you're asking for will help the campaign be more effective. And of course, be gracious and professional at all times -- any station that runs your PSA is doing you a favor, and if you come off as too pushy or unappreciative it only hurts your chances of getting your PSA on the air.

Once you've gotten approval for your PSA

After you've gotten an agreement to run your PSA from a radio or television station, find out the day and time that it will start playing. Your contact may not be the same person who actually schedules the spots, so if necessary ask him or her who is in charge of scheduling and then contact that person.

Listen to or watch the station for the first airing to make sure your PSA is shown (and that it is shown correctly). Follow up by sending a thank you note and, if you can, some small token of your gratitude, such as a certificate of appreciation or an invitation to one of your group's events.

Do keep in mind that your spot might not run exactly at the time that your contact says it will. PSA schedules are always subject to change.

How can you tell if your PSA was effective?

The best way to judge effectiveness is to request a specific action, and then to monitor the actions taken. For example, if you're requesting listeners to call a number, then you measure the number of calls received before the PSA aired. The same applies if you're asking for postcards.

Alternatively, if you were asking for attendance at an event, you could both measure attendance and also ask those attending how they heard about the event, and note the percent mentioning PSA's.

Once it's on the air, see if you can use the PSA to get more extensive media coverage, such as a media story on your work, or being a guest on a panel show, or possibly -- depending on the station and the media market -- being able to do a radio editorial or getting editorial reply time. This is using the principal of leverage, a very powerful principle in doing community work.

Finally, as noted before, pre-testing should help you figure out how effective a PSA may or may not be.

Contributor 
Chris Hampton

Online Resource

Family Health Institute (1997). Behavior change through mass communication.

Tips for Creating a Public Service Announcement, by preventionlinks.org, includes information on graphics, and on how to make a storyboard.

How to Write a Public Service Announcement that is Worth Airing, Worth Hearing and Worth Writing, by Kansas Association of Broadcasters, contains helpful examples and is written in a friendly, conversational tone.

How to Use Public Service Announcements, prepared by aspencsg.org.

Print Resources

Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (1993). "You can increase your media coverage." In Technical assistance bulletin. Rockville, MD: National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information.

Duncan, C., Rivlin, D., and Williams, M. (1990). An advocate's guide to the media. Washington, D.C.: Children's Defense Fund.

League of Women Voters of the U.S. (1978). Breaking into broadcasting. Washington, D.C.: League of Women Voters of the U.S.

New York State Department of Health. (1997). Writing public service announcements.

Pertschuk, M. and Wilbur, P. (1991). Media advocacy: Reframing public debate. Washington, D.C.Benton Foundation.