Let's Clear The Air About Public Service Announcements
by Jack McGuire
Is your association getting its fair share of the free air time available
on the nation's radio and television stations?
If not it may be time to examine your communication approach to determine
whether you are using a well-balanced public relations mix to get your
association's message across. Unless a significant amount of public service
programming is included, your PR package may not be complete.
Knowing when and how to contact radio and TV stations is crucial to success.
Yet, as you examine public service programming even on the most basic level
- what the broadcaster's obligations are on the matter - widespread misconceptions
Here, for example, is a passage from a public relations handbook prepared
by a large association for its members: "Television and radio stations
are required by the Federal Communications Commission to allocate a certain
amount of time to public service."
Not so, says the National Association of Broadcasters, Washington: "Broadcasting
is under no obligation to grant time to any specific group." There is no
law which says a station must devote a fixed amount of time to community
FCC Modifies Rules
Much of the confusion exists because of the way federal requirements
used to be, and the way they are today. In the past, to fulfill FCC requirements
that a broadcaster operate in "the public interest," stations had to
file a multitude of forms. Today, in the spirit
of deregulation and to cut out a mountain of paperwork, many of the forms
are being discarded as the FCC modifies, deletes, or rewrites the rules.
This has created a situation that virtually allows stations to set their
own standards on what constitutes proper fulfillment of their public service
programming responsibilities to their local communities.
This hasn't reduced the amount of public service time available, but it
has caused the stations to take a closer look at the whole subject of public
A clue to how they determine who gets on the air can be found in the former
code of the National Association of Broadcaster - which stations still
generally adhere to, though not on a formal basis. The code stated: "Requests
for time and placement of public service announcements or programs should
be carefully reviewed with respect to the character and reputation of the
group, the campaign or organization involved, the public interest content
of the message, and the manner of presentation."
Create a Professional Product
Even though the average TV station will air 200 public service announcements
per week, requests for free time always exceed the available supply. What
it boils down to, all other things being equal, is that attention will
be paid to the organization that is best prepared.
"Be totally professional - first in the product you create, and then
in how you offer it," advises Charlotte O'Brien, manager of community
affairs for WGN-TV, Chicago. "Watch and listen, not only to learn
what the radio and TV stations' current public service programming reflects,
but to gauge the type of material other organizations are getting on the
Start with your headquarter's city. Take the time to make personal contact
with the public service directors of the network outlets and the major
independent stations to learn exactly what they are looking for.
Because there are some 900 television and 8,000 radio stations, if you
go national, you'll have to be selective. If your public service broadcast
activities are integrated into a total communication program that has targeted
key markets and audiences, use that as your guide. Survey the stations
through a combination of personal visits, phone calls, and letters.
What your feedback will show is that very little uniformity exists in the
broadcast industry. Each station or network has its own individual preferences
in the matter of public service materials.
Understand Technical Requirements
"To get maximum placement," says Charles Vance, director of
public relations for the National Safety Council, Chicago, "it's necessary
to know something about the technical as well as the production side."
Mr. Vance, whose department includes sophisticated video, film, and radio
capabilities, suggests these general guidelines to help you produce the
most acceptable public service spots:
- Even though you handle the creative aspects of production in house,
seek technical assistance from an expert, outside source unless someone
on your staff has an electronics background.
- Although videotape is less expensive to produce than film, it's more
expensive to edit, duplicate, and ship. Because most stations have l6mm
equipment, that's the route to go.
- The common length of a public service announcement is 60, 30,20,10,
and even five seconds for both radio and TV. The most acceptable is 30
- Radio spots can be a combination of a script-for the staff announcer
to read-and a reel-to-reel tape of seven-inch disk.
- TV networks will request materials for previewing in one format - probably
l6mm or æ-inch cassette - and a different medium-l6mm or 35mm film
and one-inch or two-inch tape-for actual showing.
- Most local TV stations will accept 35mm slide/script spots in addition
to l6mm films.
Consider Radio Spots First
Unless your budget permits entry into the public service arena on a
grand scale, your first consideration should be for radio public service
announcements. You'll find production and distribution costs far less than
Depending on what your survey of individual stations reveals, you may wish
to offer spots in script form or produce announcements using a professional
announcer's voice and even sound effects and background music. Offer a
selection that includes 60-, 30-, 20-, and 10-second scripts and for the
produced version, 60-second and 30- second spots.
When writing your spots, remember that stations conform to strict time
frames. A 30-second spot means just that, no more, no less. That figures
out to about 70 words, depending on the speed with which it's read. Although
a word count can guide you, the spot should be read aloud with a stopwatch
in hand to make sure a 30-second spot is really a half-minute long.
How much can you save in 30 seconds? Plenty. Even within the limitations
of 70 words. it's possible to pack plenty of wallop into your spot, Consider
the impact of this two-word, one-second announcement: "You're fired!"
When you move up a step, from a script to produced spots, consider using
a celebrity. The cost, against a professional announcer reading your spot,
will actually be less because you won't be paying a talent fee. Syndicated
columnist Ann Landers, for example, whose asking price for personal appearances
is a reported $10,000, cut public service announcements for the National
Safety Council for free.
In making your approach, take the direct route. Explain exactly what you
want in a personal letter sent to the celebrity. If you go through a manager
or a booking agent, the star you want may never see your request.
Include background material on your association and your public service
campaign. Make it as easy on the personality as possible. Arrange for studio
time in his or her home city or when you know the celebrity will be appearing
in your area.
Don't be discouraged if your letters and follow-up calls are unanswered.
Celebrities have large demands on their time, and unless they see some
clear-cut benefit in honoring your request, you may never hear from them.
The idea is to have enough names on your celebrity list so that if you
don't get a yes from one celebrity, you will from another.
Add Local Tie-In
When thinking in terms of a celebrity, don't consider only a show business
name. Although your board, officers, and members may be impressed with
affiliation with a glamorous star, that fact will be greeted at the station
level with a reaction registering somewhere between a ho and a hum.
Of much more value, as far as the local public affairs director is concerned,
is a solid local tie-in. Particularly if you are conducting a local campaign.
a popular political figure may do just fine. Be careful, however, that
you don't use a public figure at election time, or your spot will be rejected
by the station to avoid the equal time requirement.
Whenever possible, tie in with your state or local chapters. Use their
members in the production and placement of spots. Remember that the ratio
of local as against national spots broadcast, runs about 75 percent to
25 percent, so add a local tag to the public service announcements you
Obtaining Network Exposure
If large numbers excite you. there are several direct avenues to national
network exposure. In dealing with the networks, use the same procedure
you use on the local level. Contact the public affairs director at the
national level to learn of their exact requirements and how to proceed.