Broadcast advertising without the budget

PSAs: a low-cost (or no-cost) way to spread the word.

PSAs: a low-cost (or no-cost) way to spread the word

You might think your nonprofit can’t afford to advertise during prime time TV or radio. But, believe it or not, you can get your message out over the airwaves for little or no money. It’s spelled P-S-A.

Public service announcements got lots of lip service during a session at the Making Media Connnections conference, June 11–12 in Chicago. “The Power of Word of Mouth, Paid Media and the PSA” offered advice from three panelists.

Annette Minkalis is a PR News contributor who has been with WestGlen Communications for more than 20 years. Shannon Stairhime from the Word of Mouth Marketing Association often works with organizations to identify low-cost ways to market themselves. Wanda Wells is director of community affairs with the Chicago affiliate of FOX News.

The panelists answered queries from the audience members about the who, what, when, where and why of PSAs.

How to start the conversation

Get to know your target. If you want a TV or radio station to run your PSA, your watchword should be the same as in media relations: relationships. In media relations, you need to establish a dialogue with your media contacts. It’s the same if you want a media outlet to run your PSA.

Wanda Wells advised people to get to know their local TV stations and the stations’ missions. She suggested looking at local TV and radio stations, then identifying their community service and public affairs contacts. Then introduce your organization to community affairs/public affairs contacts via a letter, phone call or meeting. And, unlike some tasks, this is one item that volunteers can tackle just as easily as staff members.

“Don’t be afraid to ask the community affairs director for direction,” Wells advised.

Identify a champion. Panel moderator Julie Somogyi of The Chicago Public Education Fund advised participants to find a person at a TV station who is sympathetic to your nonprofit.

Wells suggested contacting the community service or public affairs staff member to find out if the newsperson is interested in your cause.

To illustrate her point, Wells pointed out that a local newscaster would be walking in an upcoming fund raiser for diabetes because she was interested in the cause. That fund-raising event would automatically get TV coverage on one station in particular, just because that station’s newscaster was participating.

“If TV talent is at an event, news coverage follows,” Wells explained.

Putting your money where your mouth is

When it came to making the most of a budget, panelists had several ideas.

Don’t rule out TV. PSAs for television are expensive to produce, so many nonprofits automatically assume that they can’t afford to reach their target audiences that way. However, TV has a broader reach than radio, than so the message will get out to more people. This means that the cost per impression may actually be lower than the cost to reach the same number of people via radio.

Panelists had two suggestions for cutting costs to produce a PSA for television:

  1. Get a college class to film the PSA.
  2. Join forces with another nonprofit to produce a joint PSA.

Keep your ear to the radio. Radio is less expensive, and one can hone in on an audience more closely than with TV.

One low-cost technique, especially if the message has a limited market, is to write a “live read” script: a PSA that an on-air personality reads live on the air (as opposed to a prerecorded message).

  1. If your organization is hoping for a live read, send it to a radio station via fax or e-mail; some stations will run it.
  2. After you’ve submitted your script, follow up to find out if someone at the station will read it, who will read it, how often it can be read and what the length will be (a 30-second read for radio is the norm, but a 10- or 15-second spot is fine).

Talking turkey about timing

Timing is everything, when it comes to advertising. So panelists tossed out some tips on how to time a PSA for the best effect.

Take advantage of seasonal benefits. If you have one big event annually, do a PSA that focuses on that. However, it’s a good idea to also provide a PSA that is not tied to an event.

TV stations are often begging for spots in December and January, Wells said, because many commercial spots are done for the year. Something that runs at that time of the year may reach more people, as well, since listeners in colder climates tend to stay indoors more during the winter months.

Look beyond prime time. Be flexible with your airdates and times. That will increase your chances of having the PSA run.

“PSAs don’t only run in the wee hours,” explained panelist Annette Minkalis. “Only about one-third of them run overnight. Twenty percent of radio airings are during drive time.”

Allow some lead time. Get your PSA to a TV station four to six weeks before you want it to run. Wells revealed that she gets 75 to 100 PSAs to screen each week.

“Remember that community affairs is a line item, and we’ll take what we can get,” Wells joked.

She also said that a 4 a.m. airing was not necessarily undesirable; the station gets plenty of calls from people who are inquiring about PSAs they have seen in the middle of the night. Wells also noted that community calendars are invaluable. TV stations often have from one to three hours of news broadcasting on a weekend, for example.

One audience member asked how to get a PSA to air during a news show.

“Watch the shows and then decide if your not-for-profit’s mission works with that show,” Wells responded. She used the Y-ME National Breast Cancer Foundation’s “Sister to Sister” campaign as an example. “Think about the issue and how the news story can be created and be an opportunity to tie into the news cycle,” she advised.

Let’s give ’em something to talk about

Panelists offered some straight talk on how to make PSAs most effective.

  1. First decide on one message.
  2. Include a call to action.
  3. PSAs for TV will get more play if they show movement, especially if they show a group that is affected by the organization’s work.
  4. Make the PSA in multiple lengths, such as 60 seconds and 15 seconds
  5. Choose spokespeople carefully. Sometimes a nonprofit’s executive director is the best choice for a voiceover. However, if you decide to use a celebrity spokesperson, make sure that person is not on a popular TV show because the PSA might not do well on competing stations.
  6. And be cautious about hitching your wagon to a star, no matter whom you choose. Though celebrity involvement can raise the profile of an issue – such as Michael J. Fox with Parkinson’s disease – a celebrity misdeed (such as a DWI or racist rant) can taint any organizations that celebrity is affiliated with.

The panelists also advised against submitting any PSAs that include corporate sponsors. Nonprofits that had PSAs with a corporate tagline were asked to submit branded and nonbranded versions of their PSAs.

Wells explained how this difference could affect whether an ad would air. For example, she told a story about a rained-out NASCAR event, which led her TV station to have an unexpected need to fill airtime. So producers searched for PSAs to run, in conjunction with paid advertising. However, the station couldn’t use certain PSAs because they included for-profit logos in the last five seconds of the ad.

“We could maybe use a PSA if the tag at the end said, ‘Supported by Target,’ etc.,” she said. “Otherwise you could work out a deal between the corporate sponsor and the salespeople [at the station].”

When asked the likelihood of a PSA being aired several times, Wells had encouraging news.

“If you send a generic PSA, it will go into rotation for 60 days,” she said.

Is the message getting through?

Panelists suggested different ways to measure the effectiveness of a PSA.

To measure impressions, Minkalis pointed out that Nielsen ratings can show how often a PSA has run.

Shannon Stairhime suggested looking to the Web. She advised participants to conduct Google searches to see if an organization and its issues were making news on the Web (or Technorati, to check blogs).

“There’s already somebody out there on the Web talking about your topic,” Stairhime pointed out. “Get people to talk about it.”

To see some examples of effective PSAs, check out the Fenton Communications Web site. Its Best Practices page includes a PDF called “Now Advertise This: How to Make News With Public Interest Advertising.”

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