The 5 Ps of PSAs
by Bill Goodwill

Editor’s note: The following article appeared in the “Communicators Guide for Federal, State, Regional and Local Communicators” published by the Federal Communicators Network. It was updated in March 2014.

When strategically planned and executed, Public Service Advertising campaigns can broaden the reach of your mass communications program, create greater credibility for your organization, and strengthen your brand image. They have also been used to: recruit volunteers into the Armed Forces or Peace Corps; encourage people to write for specific information on an issue; participate in a special event; or just visit a website to get additional information. In a longer term context, they have helped to reduce the incidence of drunk driving by half, when combimed with stronger enforcement. To see mini case histories of how PSAs have been used to accomplish a variety of objectives, go to:

To make it easier to remember the key points for a well orchestrated effort, we have developed what we call the Five P's of PSAs: Planning, Promotion, Placement/Packaging, Performance Assessment, and Professional Competence.


Unfortunately many public education campaigns are launched without serious thought or research about campaign objectives. If your budget permits, you should test your message among your target audience with focus groups, often referred to as qualitative research. For more information on the basics, go to

If your issue or cause is in the least bit controversial, or if there is any concern how your audience will react, you should definitely employ focus groups. They will help you sharpen your message, make sure your target audience understands your key points, and keep you from possibly offending your audience.

Also consider establishing a baseline of public attitudes or behavior about your issue by employing tracking (quantitative) research. Once you have a baseline, you'll be able to measure your post-campaign results with the baseline. But be advised that real attitude and behavior change does not occur in the short term; it could be years for you to notice meaningful shifts.

After you've completed the research phase of your campaign, it's time to develop your formal, written plan, which ensures you do not omit a key element. You should involve your entire public affairs staff in drafting the plan or anyone who can make a contribution to the ultimate success of the campaign.

Here are some questions you should address in the planning phase of your campaign:

  • What are you trying to accomplish via the campaign...create general awareness, drive people to a website, call a toll-free number, raise funds, recruit volunteers?

  • How about your primary and secondary target audiences - where do they live, what are their ages, what are their media habits?

  • What are your plans to involve other stakeholders such as the media and your own internal audiences such as community partners?

  • What are your creative options? Will you produce the campaign elements with your internal staff or will you hire external producers? What is the cost vs. benefit for each option?

  • What is the campaign scope - is it TV only or will it involve other media?

  • What is the one single message you want your audience to remember and what is the call to action?

  • What's your timeline? Are there special events you can tie into to leverage your exposure? When do you plan the launch and how much time before that date to you have to start planning in order to make your deadline?
  • Finally, you need to establish a budget and determine who will need to approve all major components of the campaign as it is implemented. By thinking through all your options in advance, it will save from making costly mistakes and guide you through production and implementation.


    Promotion is critical to the success of a PSA campaign, but it is often overlooked. Here are are some tactics that could make a huge difference in the ultimate impact of your PSA:

  • Cultivate contacts at the TV networks-primarily the big four. ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox Networks. While they rarely broadcast PSAs on their networks these days, they may feed your PSA to their affiliate stations. See more information in the article, “Network Clearance-A Producer's Checklist.”

  • Don't overlook the various cable networks which may be perfect for your message. For example, if you have an environmental message, the National Geographic and Discovery Channels would be a perfect match. Currently there are 150 national cable networks to which we distribute our client PSAs. Each of them requires different materials and the decision-makers change often, so we have our outreach person contact each of them to pitch the client's PSA and ensure they have the materials they can use.

    For one of our clients national networks generated 70 percent of all values for their campaign, so it is particularly important to get usage on them. Either have your staff contact them and pitch your PSAs, or have your distributor do it, because it could one of the most successful things you do.

  • Try to get media support from some of the major media associations such as the National Association of Broadcasters, the Cable Television Association, or even some of the leading radio networks such as Clear Channel and XM Sirius. They may agree to let you use their logo on your PSA packaging, implying endorsement, and perhaps even send a blast fax or email to their member stations about your campaign.

    For a campaign we distributed for the March of Dimes, Clear Channel agreed to let us use their logo on packaging materials sent to their affiliates. For an outdoor billboard campaign we distributed for the Social Security Administration, the Outdoor Advertising Association of America agreed to endorse the campaign which helped us place over 2,700 billboards in less than two months.

  • If you're launching a new campaign that is particularly time sensitive, or has some other compelling argument, consider a pre-campaign alert. These alerts can be blast faxes, postcards, telegrams, emails or some other creative approach to the media-typically aimed at media gatekeepers. This gives them a heads-up on your new campaign and helps them schedule your PSAs, particularly if they are keyed to a special event.

  • Each state has its own broadcasters association, which you can also enage in your campaign via pre-campaign alerts or news releases. For a complete list go to

  • If you have a timely event or something newsworthy, such as new survey data on your issue, think about launching a kick-off press conference at the National Press Club in downtown Washington, DC. Many trade publications and reporters for national and local newspapers are located right in the building. However, don't hold a press conference unless you have something particularly meaningful to announce.

  • Develop a list of trade media contacts to which a storyboard or press release can be sent. Advertising Age, and Broadcasting & Cable or the Non-Profit Times might be interested in doing a story on your campaign. For lists of trade publications, go to Cision's

    And remember the Web...use online distribution services such as PR Web for distributing your release online. One of the advantages of PR Web is that it allows us to embed the TV PSA in the news release so journalists who want to view the PSA don't have to go to another site. It reaches 30,000 online journalists; provides metrics in terms of who has read the release; and helps elevate your Google rankings when people type your key issue into searches.

  • Remember that you are not working on your issue alone. For every mainstream cause or issue there could be a half dozen different organizations working in that space. Try to reach out to these organizations and find ways to engage them as a collaborating partner. This can help you leverage your message reach, funding, and resources.

  • Think about doing a special newsletter on your issue strictly for the media. We produce a newsletter called Broadcasters Cafe which is targeted to TV stations to provide the “deep sell” on a client’s issue and why it is important to media gatekeepers.

  • Find a special commemorative event that you can associate with your campaign. There are special events for just about every cause or concern and if you coordinate your campaign with a special event, - or create one if you can – you could generate more publicity and public attention. For example, we distributed radio, print and out-of-home PSA posters on behalf of National Safe Driving Month which occurs each April.

  • Engage your community partners. Your regional or local public affairs staffs can help immeasurably in engaging local media in your campaign. Ask them to tag materials for local use, make local media visits, or give you feedback on local concerns. For for ideas on how to do this, go to Involving Your CommunityPartners in PSA Program Development.
  • Placement & Packaging

    Placement includes all the activities involved in getting your PSA on the air or in print packaging, distribution, and local media contact. Here are some things to think about in this part of your plan:

  • Target those stations most likely to use your PSAs based on previous usage patterns. We use something called the Previous Usage Index which is a coding system based on the number of times a media outlet has used our client PSAs to ensure we are distributing PSAs to those stations which are frequent users.

  • Send media outlets the type of formats they most prefer, i.e. specific video tape format for TV, CD for radio and hi-res art for print. Also send them as many different spot lengths and print ad sizes as you can, because it provides media with flexibility. For more details on this point, you should visit the FAQs on our PSA Research Center at

  • Remember, that in a PSA context, local trumps national every time, so if you have people working at the community level, share campaign strategy and samples with your community partners. The Internet is the perfect mechanism for sharing information, so make sure you show your partners where PSAs were distributed in their communities as well as the media that are, or are not, using your PSAs so they can make follow-up calls.
  • When it comes to packaging your campaign, you should use good direct mail techniques to send your PSAs to the media. These include full color and compelling graphics, a benefit statement, titles and lengths of all PSAs in the package and a “pull date” (when the campaign expires).

    As you design your packaging materials, remember that you have less than a minute to entice a harried TV public service director to open your PSA, and keep in mind they get hundreds of PSAs each week. Including a TV storyboard in your package is very important, because the public service director may not have preview equipment readily available. Make sure you provide some brief facts on your issue and why the media should consider using it.

    Also, if you can, put all your campaign information on a single sheet of paper, avoiding overly elaborate packages. Media gatekeepers won’t read a lot of copy and if you send them fancy packages, they may think if you have that kind of money, you should be paying for the airtime. To read articles on how to package your campaign, go to:

    Since all PSA time and space is unknown in advance, it is very important to provide as much flexibility as you can to media gatekeepers who are filling unused time and space in various sizes and time blocks. For print PSAs, use CDs to send digital art of print PSAs in various sizes and in both horizontal and vertical formats.

    For radio & TV, you should include at least three spots - 60, 30, and 15 seconds. One of the worst mistakes producers can make is to create only a 30-second TV spot. Research shows that 60-second TV PSAs will get the most use, which allows you more time to tell your story,and they create more value. If you go to the PSA Research Center FAQs reference earlier, we provide graphs on the most frequently used spot lenghts.

    And above all, make sure your message is relevant to the local community. Local media care most about how your national issue can build greater audience share for their station, so position and package your issue to emphasize local relevance. If you have community partners in local markets, think about tagging the PSAs with local information.

    Finally, there are cost-effective ways to package your materials. You can use a shared-reel or disk approach to reach cable TV and radio rather than sending individual PSAs. You can put PSA messages aimed at different audiences, e.g. Spanish and English on the same reel or CD, instead of sending separate packages. When distributing TV PSAs, you will be paying for five minutes of video tape and about an hour for a CD. Since you are paying for that capacity, why not find creative ways to use all of it? Consider including longer-form videos, VNRs (Video News Releases) or B-roll in your release to cable systems. Many will use these longer-length pieces.

    Performance Assessment

    Collecting data just for the sake of creating a report, is a meaningless exercise. You've got to massage the data, look at it from various angles, and merchandise it to the fullest extent. Make sure your creative team knows what works and what doesn't. Send evaluation reports to all your stakeholders.

    Analyze your data at least monthly and find out how your campaign compares to others (your distributor can help you with this.) By analyzing your PSA usage data as your compaign progresses, you will be able to address weaknesses as they occur, rather than waiting until the end of the campaign, when it is too late. We provide a map with each of our weekly client PSA reports that shows where you are, and are not getting usage according to four levels of exposure.

    There are lots of different reasons for evaluating your campaign:

  • It identifies areas of weak usage and provides the basis for correcting these trends before it is too late.

  • It provides data to demonstrate you are meeting your organization's critical mission or Key Performance Indicators.

  • You can use evaluation data to calculate cost-benefit ratios (production, distribution and evaluation costs divided into the amount of advertising equivalency value the campaign generated.

  • It can help show how you've engaged the media in your issue.

  • An analysis of phone calls or Web site visits can demonstrate the level of public

  • Over time you can demonstrate how your campaign is achieving greater public awareness or changing attitudes.

  • You can use evauation data to thank the media for all the time and space they devote to your campaign.

  • It will help keep your community partners engaged.

  • And evaluation can help sustain future funding, because your boss will want to know about your results.
  • For more specifics on how you can use evaluation data, you may want to read the article: "How You Can Use Evaluation Data To Fine-Tune Your PSA Program."

    Professional Competence

    In a book published by Advertising Age entitled: Advertising in America, one of the deans of advertising, David Ogilvy, had this to say about advertising in the public interest: "Advocacy advertising is not a job for beginners, but there is a tradition of it within the profession."

    Just like anything else in life, if you want to be really good at your craft, you have to work at it. You need to do the research, and a lot of reading, to find out what works and what doesn’t work with PSAs, and the only way to know that is to study the “science” literature.

    Like any other mass communications technique, it takes time and effort to learn everything there is to know about producing PSAs that get used. Even experienced advertising agencies and consultants often overlook the basics. On the other hand, given the data that is available on PSAs, there's no excuse for creating PSA messages and campaigns that are off-target, in the wrong format, or directed to the wrong media people.

    Before you even think about designing your campaign, talk to as many experienced people as you can. Call your distributor, go to workshops, call media people, talk to your advertising agency, and read about the subject. There are many articles on media and PSAs, as well as media links at: that can help you stay abreast of the changing trends in the field.

    When it comes to PSA professional competencey, what you don't know will hurt you. What you don't know will cause costly mistakes and missed opportunities, which in turn, could be worth millions of dollars of lost exposure for your cause. So the next time you are ready to launch a major national campaign, think about the 5 P’s of PSAs and make sure you incorporate them into your plans.

    (Updated 3/15/14)