Planned and executed strategically, public service ad campaigns can help nonprofits build their brand image while netting millions of 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 PSA campaigns that 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.

Think Audience

“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, an ad agency that 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,” he says.

Here are some questions you should address in your plans:

  • 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?

Media Collaboration

Engaging the media is another very important part of a successful PSA campaign.
If you can get the 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 by requesting media organizations permission to use their logos in your campaign to 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 pre-campaign alerts or blast emails to the media which notifies them where to download your PSAs and helps them in scheduling.

PSA Placement

The PSA placement phase includes activities required to get your PSA on the air or used in outdoor ad venues by:

  • Pitching your campaign to cable TV and radio networks that reach your target audience.
  • Target those stations most likely to use your PSAs based on previous usage patterns. Your distributor can provide these contacts.
  • Provide your materials in various lengths and sizes to give media scheduling flexibility.
  • Ensure your materials are ready to air or be posted in terms of technical specs.
  • Post your PSAs to a digital download site which can be shared with the media.
  • Remember that in a PSA context, local trumps national exposure. If you have community partners (chapters, offices, etc.) share campaign samples and strategies with them.

Track Performance

Unlike in the past where accurate PSA evaluation data was largely unavailable, the Nielsen SpotTrac monitoring system and usage data provided by outdoor companies can provide very useful information on your PSA usage, including where, when, and frequency of use, as well as estimated values. However, it’s what you do with the data that’s important. Some tips to get more values:

  • Focus your promotional and follow-up efforts on broadcast TV since it will typically provide most of your exposure.
  • Extend your Nielsen TV tracking to a minimum of one year which will add a significant amount of incremental usage.
  • Analyze where your exposure is weak or non-existent and either send reminders to the media in those areas, or if you have local partners, ask them to make media outreach calls.
  • Thank the media that used your PSAs via either letters, emails or thank-you notes.

Just like any other mass communications initiatives, when PSAs are well planned and executed you can expect an excellent return on investment.

Bill Goodwill is the founder of Goodwill Communications, which distributes, promotes and evaluates national PSA campaigns.