Using PSA Strategy to Get Media Support
By Bill Goodwill

As a non-profit executive, you must grapple with ways to increase your donor base, recruit volunteers and educate your key audiences about your organizational issues. Launching a strategic public service advertising campaign is one way to accomplish all three of these goals.

Most PSA producers would agree that the competition for media time and space is getting more intense. Where they disagree, however, is just how competitive the PSA environment is, and what can be done to ensure that they get their fair share of the pie.

There are numerous reasons why the demand for PSA exposure is at a premium these days, including:

  • The emergence of many new social ills and causes accompanied by heightened public awareness and a renewed sense of activism. AIDS, drug abuse, the environment, illiteracy and the homeless are just a few of the most topical.

  • As part of the war on drugs, many media organizations - particularly the networks - have made commitments to run PSAs or paid commercials which are part of a massive ad campaign launched by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. This obviously leaves less airtime for other causes.

  • Many TV and radio stations have become increasingly involved with local issues and charities, meaning that those national issues without a local tie-in assume a lesser priority.

  • In a race for greater audience shares, still other stations are using time that used to be allocated to PSAs for station and program promotions, to help them achieve a stronger identity in their market.

  • In print, declining advertising revenues have led to smaller newspapers and magazines, thus reducing the amount of space available for PSAs.

The Good News

These trends form the realities of the contemporary PSA marketplace in which non-profit organizations must compete for donated time and space.

However, there is some good news. Most radio and television stations are committed to around the clock programming, meaning there is a substantial amount of airtime to fill, some of which is unsold at any given time. Also tighter news production budgets mean that many of these stations need to use material produced externally to fill vacant time slots. And there has been an explosion in new media vehicles over the past decade, which includes everything from the Internet to place-based information delivery systems in doctors' offices, supermarkets and airports. All of these provide placement opportunities for PSAs.

Nor is there data to suggest that the media is running fewer PSAs as a whole. Data from our Public Service Advertising Analysis System indicates that 1,100, or 80% of all U.S. TV stations regularly use national PSAs. Benchmark data from six typical PSA campaigns also show that an average TV campaign will receive 12,466 airplays on 274 stations and will generate in excess of $2 million worth of exposure. Radio and print will add another million for a total of $3.1 million. When compared to your production costs, this is an excellent return on investment.

However, these results can only be achieved if you do everything right. Media outlets are unquestionably becoming more demanding about the types of PSAs they use, and you need to have a solid plan to get your issue on the air or in print.

Developing Strategies

Most organizations that market a product wouldn't think of embarking on a marketing campaign without defining objectives, strategies and tactics for implementation. This is an area, however, where many non-profit organizations fall short when it comes to planning their PSA campaign.

To be successful in today's competitive PSA environment, there are several basic, but important strategies organizations should include in their PSA programs:

The first is to create very high-quality, high impact campaign materials that communicate the message very quickly and clearly. And it is important to recognize the comparative strengths of different types of media.

Television, for example, is best employed to communicate a single idea quickly, leaving the "deep sell" to radio and print media. TV spots should maximize visual impact via the highest possible "production values," rather than "talking heads," or less interesting visual formats.

Radio PSAs should be professionally produced using interesting sound effects, and print ads should be designed to run in high-quality magazines, not just small weekly newspapers. You also need to provide the media as much flexibility as possible by sending your PSAs in various spot lengths and ad sizes. Since all PSAs are placed in unsold slots, no one knows what time or space will be available.

Next, it is important to develop a comprehensive, targeted distribution plan that capitalizes on the inherent strengths of different media. Each medium has strengths and weaknesses, and since the PSA producer cannot control timing, frequency and placement, it is important to use a broad media "mix."

While television creates widespread general awareness of a problem, it doesn't permit you to reach  specific demographic audiences unless you buy the time. Radio, on the other hand, is audience-specific, and can provide excellent penetration of smaller markets, filling in voids where TV audiences may be light or nonexistent. Its portability - particularly in summer when more people are out of home- is another advantage.

Newspapers provide good direct response and a much longer shelf life than broadcast, while magazines reach a variety of special interests. These factors are fairly basic, but many PSA producers do not use media collectively to achieve their desired goal.

Given the expensive cost of PSA packages - particularly TV - organizations can maximize their impact and cost effectiveness by targeting only media outlets that regularly use PSAs. Our master media database of 30,000 outlets includes a previous usage index for every outlet so we can avoid sending materials to outlets that don't use them.

A related point is to know the preferred material formats of the media outlets to which PSAs are being sent. Most station public service directors indicate that next to unavailable time, improper format is the single biggest reason for non-use of materials. TV stations use several different TV dub formats - ¾, 1 inch, BETA SP and various digital tapes. You need to know the preferred format for each station and send them what they want.

The third part of the strategic PSA plan is to use imaginative packaging concepts designed to make your PSA materials intrusive and memorable.

Packaging & Promotion

Given the competition from other organizations seeking free airtime, you need to create an attention-getting PSA package to cut through the clutter facing public service directors each day. For TV PSAs, you should always include a storyboard -preferably four colors - in your package to show the gatekeeper what is on your PSA video tape. And to make your package stand out, you should design an attractive external label with a benefit statement or teaser copy to entice the public service director to at least open your package.

We often send a newsletter called Broadcasters Café to stations to keep them current on PSA issues and inform them about our campaigns in current distribution.   Blast faxes, emails and even special websites are some other ways to inform, educate and engage media gatekeepers in your issue or cause.

The fourth strategic step is to employ techniques to maximize local impact. One way to do this is to send fact sheets with local data on your issue. For the National Safe Boating Week PSA campaign, television stations were provided with statistics on the number of boating accidents and fatalities in their state. For many clients, we tag TV PSAs with local chapter phone numbers. Getting local chapters and affiliates to distribute your PSAs, and seeking their input on developing local distribution lists are other ways to maximize impact at the community level.  The National Multiple Sclerosis Society even sends localized letters out to the media that are part of its national distribution plan.

Obtaining network and media organizational support is the fifth strategic step. Even though you will be distributing your TV PSA directly to stations, it is also important to solicit network endorsement as well. Each of the big three New York networks feeds PSAs to their affiliates and your distributor should be able to provide the names of contacts and required formats for each network.

The National Association of Broadcasters also gets involved in many national issues and provides a monthly closed circuit feed of worthy PSAs to its member stations.


The next important strategic step is to evaluate campaign impact and use evaluation data to fine-tune subsequent PSA strategy.

A.C. Nielsen's SIGMA electronic tracking system provides non-profits with accurate and timely feedback on TV PSA usage. This system, which uses an invisible electronic code imbedded on dubs sent to stations, provides data on the stations using PSAs, market size, usage by spot length, and exact time of day usage occurred.

Campaigns are normally tracked for 26 weeks and some campaigns are still generating incremental usage a year and a half after distribution.

Getting feedback on PSA usage is only half the battle, however. Tracking usage just for the sake of collecting data is a meaningless exercise unless you learn something from the data and use it to change future decision-making. It is very important to carefully analyze the data to determine where your usage is strongest and areas where exposure may be minimal or non-existent. In those areas where improvements are needed, you can make phone calls to stations, have your local reps contact gatekeepers, or send reminder postcards to increase usage.  Also, remember to say thank you to those media outlets that have provided support to your organization which will help build good relationships when you release your next campaign.

Given the current state of affairs, the competition for donated media time and space is likely to get more intense. This, in turn, will force organizations to become more competitive, accept reduced levels of public awareness, or seek new methods of generating exposure for their particular issue. By developing PSA plans that combine hard-hitting creative, imaginative distribution and using evaluation data to improve performance, organizations can stay a step ahead of the competition.

Perhaps more important, advertising can be as effective in helping us achieve a better world as it has in selling products.

Victor G. Bloede, past chairman of Benton & Bowles Worldwide, summarized a speech to the Second International Conference on Public Service Advertising by saying we have to use basic marketing skills to make PSAs more effective by:

  • Using all the tools we have, including consumer and market research to find the "hot button" -- the selling proposition that is going to gain a response from our audience.

  • Using all our creative skills to turn that proposition into an interesting, provocative memorable benefit to the viewer or reader.

  • Using all the techniques of communication - public relations, merchandising, direct marketing, and advertising creativity to make a complete sales campaign.

  • Measuring the success of our efforts against pre-determined goals.

Unquestionably, a well orchestrated PSA campaign can help increase visibility for your non-profit and few would argue that it is easier to raise money for an organization that is well known compared to one that is not. For more information on how you can develop strategic PSA campaigns for your organization or issue, visit the Public Service Advertising Research Center and type "Campaign Effectiveness" in the search engine at the top of the page.

Bill Goodwill is CEO of Goodwill Communications, a firm specializing in PSA distribution and evaluation, located in Burke, VA. His firm has distributed over 500 national PSA campaigns for non-profits and federal agencies. Write him at