Chapter Five: How to Develop Your PSA Campaign

In this chapter, we focus on public service announcements, often referred to as PSAs.  Public service announcements can be a valuable tool for getting your message across at little or no cost.  We will look at how to use radio and television stations and cable systems to reach your target market.

What Is A PSA?

A public service announcement (PSA) is a free announcement broadcast on radio, television, or cable systems for the interest of the general public.  PSAs are similar to advertisements. Both are meant to promote something, but PSAs are free and usually restricted to a maximum of 30 seconds, while an advertisement costs money.  To a large extent, the length of an ad is restricted only by the size of the advertiser's budget.  PSAs are intended to modify public attitudes by creating or enhancing awareness of specific causes, organizations, or events.  Radio and TV stations are required by the Federal Communications Commission to set aside a certain amount of their air time for public service, and most all stations fulfill this requirement by airing public service announcements. 
Your affiliate or chapter can take advantage of this guerrilla promotional method to enhance the public awareness of your organization, or to publicize an activity or event or program.  We classify PSAs as a guerrilla marketing method because they are very low-cost.  The only real cost is the modest investment required to produce and distribute the PSA.  It is much easier and less costly to produce radio PSAs, as opposed to TV PSAs, because all you have to do is write the script and record it, which can be done very easily and inexpensively.  TV PSAs can be very basic and the video can be produced with pretty inexpensive equipment, but even so, they are usually much more challenging to create than radio PSAs. 
In general, PSAs are used most effectively to promote an ongoing campaign of some sort, like to create greater awareness of your affiliate or chapter, or to promote a cause or program your affiliate or chapter sponsors, such as a scholarship program or a grant program.  In contrast, to promote a specific event, like a dining in the dark event, media releases tend to be more appropriate.

Creating and Distributing Your PSA

There are certain fundamentals that apply regardless of whether you are creating a PSA for radio or for TV or cable.  While PSAs are a valuable resource, preparing one that is effective is often like solving a mystery.  What constitutes an effective PSA?  How can an affiliate, often with shrinking resources, put together a PSA that will capture the interest of those who hear or see it?  Each day the nation's media outlets receive large numbers of requests for free time or space for public service announcements, asking them to give their program or announcement special attention. Most PSAs are not selected and the reasons are many and varied. The two most common reasons noted by those making the decision to not run a given PSA are poor message design and irrelevant subject matter.
In contrast, here are the three primary criteria that are used in selecting PSAs to run:

  • Sponsorship: what organization is submitting the PSA?
  • Relevance of the message to the community: of what interest is it to the station's target audience?
  • Message design: how well is the message written? 

Broadcasters also seek quality and have raised concerns ranging from "vague and ambiguous messages" to "poor execution." Subject problems include topics that are of little interest to the general public or are too complex to lend themselves to brief delivery.
Yet even well-produced, relevant PSAs often fail to receive the attention they deserve. This is often due to poor presentation of the PSA to the media outlet. Don't ignore the importance of writing a cover letter to the radio and/or TV stations delineating the importance of your PSA and how it is relevant to the interests of their listening or viewing audience.  You need to promote your PSA -- a "pitch letter" -- that tells your story and sells it to the media.  It is a good idea to include a brochure about your organization, too. 
Keep in mind that radio stations are increasingly rejecting pre-recorded PSAs, and instead often prefer to have their own announcers read the scripts live. (However, if there is a compelling reason for distributing a pre-recorded PSA, check with your local radio station for advice on production.)
TV and cable television are, obviously, different from radio to the extent they also allow the use of video in addition to the audio component.  Unlike radio, TV and cable stations prefer pre-recorded PSAs.  Some stations will actually assist in the production process, especially the public broadcasting stations.  Also, many colleges and universities will include the production of PSAs in some of their video production-related courses or will allow a student to produce a PSA for you as a special project.  Anyone with a reasonably decent video camera, like a flip cam, can assist in the production of a basic PSA for TV or your local cable company to run.
While you may know about all of your radio and TV stations, you might not be as aware of the local cable company that will also run your PSA.  Again, by law, all cable companies must set aside a certain number of channels called public access channels.  These channels are used, as the name implies, for public access; that is, they feature programming produced by local businesses or organizations or even individuals.  PSAs can be run on these public access channels.  In addition, the cable companies often produce their own programming that is aired over cable channels, and again, PSAs can be run on these channels as well.  So, your local cable company is an excellent source to be used for airing your PSAs.  Cable companies also often allocate one channel to a community calendar that rotates through a series of listings for local activities and events, which your affiliate or chapter can take advantage of too.  (For more details about using bulletin boards and calendars, see chapter two.)

Example 1: Radio PSA

The South Central Kentucky Council of the Blind (SCKCB) created and distributed a series of PSAs for radio, and at one point, they were being aired by 23 stations in the greater Bowling Green, Kentucky area.  First, we chose a theme.  In this example, we decided to target parents of blind children.  Next, we wrote the copy for a 30-second PSA.  Normally, the maximum number of words that can be packed into a 30-second PSA is between 60 and 75, possibly 80, depending upon how rapidly the copy is read and how complex the ideas or concepts are that are being conveyed.  Here is the text or copy of the 72-word PSA we created: 
South Central Kentucky Council of the Blind
Radio Promo 1
30 seconds
Are you a parent of a blind child? Here at the South Central Kentucky Council of the Blind, we know that blindness does not have to be a limitation. There are successful blind people in nearly every profession. Your child can become anything he or she wants to be.If you would like more information, please contact us at (270) 782-9325. The South Central Kentucky Council of the Blind, we’re here to help.
This PSA was read by one of the SCKCB members.  Another member composed the accompanying guitar music and mixed the script with the music, producing a very professional-sounding recording in MP3 format.  Then, we copied the recording onto CDs.  Along with the CD, we sent each station a hard copy of the script.  Therefore, the station had the choice of running the pre-recorded PSA or having one of its on-air personalities read the script.  We contacted each station to determine who should receive the PSA.  We placed the materials in a pocket folder.  A cover letter and CD were placed in the left pocket, and the written script was placed in the right pocket.  In some cases, the packet was hand delivered, which is preferred, but in most cases it was mailed to the key person in the station that handles PSAs. 

Example 2

We are the American Council of the Blind of New Mexico.  Some of us are tall, some of us are short, and even couch potatoes and exercise enthusiasts.  Now how about this? We are involved in a wide variety of vocational interests, such as computer programmers, and teachers, and business owners. For more information about the American Council of the Blind of New Mexico, you can call (505) 463-6098. 
However, if you prefer, there are also several scripts for a variety of public service announcements available from our ACB PR Committee that you can easily customize by inserting your affiliate’s or chapter’s name and contact information into the text, replacing the information already there.  Here is just one example:
Do you have trouble distinguishing between a twenty and a ten-dollar bill in dim light? Are you having difficulty reading the newspaper? Are you experiencing severe vision loss? Or do you know anyone who is?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then the American Council of the Blind can help you.  We are blind and visually impaired people from every walk of life who work together to enhance our lives.
For more information, or a membership application, call (800) 424-8666 or contact us online at