By Bill Goodwill

Planned and executed strategically, public service ad campaigns can help non-profits build their brand image while netting millions dollars worth of free advertising space and airtime. But no matter how enticing the promise of a great return on investment may be, creating and deploying public service campaigns that actually work can be a major challenge.

The first thing to keep in mind is that no matter how noble your mission or message, the media are under no obligation to tell your story. To garner scarce PSA inventory, you need to have a message that connects, an execution that stands out, and a promotional effort that separates your message from the pack.

Planning – The Key to Success

"Don't do any creative work on PSAs until you've thought long and hard about your target audience and exactly what you want them to do," says Chuck Husak, creative director of August Lang Husak, a Bethesda, MD agency that has conceived many award-winning PSA campaigns. "By considering the various audiences you want to reach, what makes them tick, and your intended call-to-action, it will help you sharpen your campaign's creative focus and the way you package your message," he says.

Here are some questions you should address in your plan:

  • What are the objectives and scope of the campaign? Is it TV only, or will it involve other media?

  • What techniques will you employ to engage the media in your campaign?

  • What's your timeline? Are there special events you can tie into to leverage your exposure?

Thinking through all your options in the planning phase will help you save money and avoid mistakes later.


Engaging the media is another very important part of a successful PSA campaign; if you can get media to collaborate with you prior to distribution, you are ahead of the game. There are various ways to accomplish this goal:

  • Seek media endorsements in the form of co-branding. For example, getting the National Association of Broadcasters to permit you to use their logo on all your PSA packaging materials will imply endorsement.

  • Stage a press conference to announce your campaign and show your PSAs; send a press release to the advertising, PR and marketing trade media.

  • Send a pre-campaign alert - blast faxes, postcards, or emails - to the media, which helps them schedule your PSAs.


The placement phase includes activities required to get 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:

  • Pitch your campaign to cable networks that reach your target audience and there are cable channels to match nearly every issue. For example, contact the National Geographic and Discovery Channels for a campaign that deals with the environment.

  • Target those stations most likely to use your PSAs based on previous usage patterns, rather than size of market or audience.

  • Distribute materials to media outlets in the manner they prefer, i.e. snail-mail versus email attachments or uploads to FTP sites. Also send as many different spot lengths and print ad sizes as possible, because it provides media with flexibility.

  • Remember that in a PSA context, local trumps national every time. Share all campaign samples and strategy with your community partners.


Historically there was virtually no credible or accurate evaluation data for PSA campaigns. Today, with the Nielsen SpotTrac monitoring system, electronic tracking of radio PSAs, digital clip services, and numerous Internet tracking services, there is no excuse for not getting good data. However, it’s what you do with the data that’s important. Some tips to get more value:

  • Focus your time on broadcast TV follow-up since it will typically provide 80% of your exposure.

  • Extend your TV tracking to a minimum of one year.

  • Examine where you are not getting exposure and ask your community partners to make calls to local stations; send letters of appreciation to all media outlets that used your messages.

Brand Building

Despite the dearth of data showing a relationship between PSAs and brand building, many organizations attribute much of their brand improvement to their PSA campaign. For example, prior to launching a five-year multi-media PSA program, the National Easter Seal Society conducted a survey of brand awareness. It showed that 90 percent of the public recognized the Easter Seals name, but only a third knew what the organization did. After the five-year PSA effort, a follow-up survey showed that 59 percent of respondents could provide a description of the mission of the Easter Seal Society.

Like any other marketing initiative, PSAs should not be done just because there is extra money in the budget. However, when they are well planned and executed…when there is consistency of the message repeated over time, you can expect an outstanding return on investment.


The PSA Research Center FAQ’s
The 5 P’s of PSAs
How to Place PSAs in Your Community
Enhance Your Image Through Issues & Advocacy
Using Evaluation Data to Fine Tune Your PSA Program
Engaging Community Partners in Your Issue

About the author: Bill Goodwill is CEO of Goodwill Communications, a firm specializing in PSA distribution and evaluation. He has nearly 40 years of experience helping implement national campaigns for 160 non-profit organizations and federal agencies