If you run a nonprofit organization, public service advertising can give you a free or inexpensive way to share an important message to a targeted audience via the radio, TV, print or Internet. At the same time, you can increase the public's awareness of your organization and encourage them to take a specific action, like make a donation or follow tips for safe driving. When using a public service announcement (PSA) for your organization, it's important to consider the pros and cons of this form of advertising and understand how to plan and structure your ad effectively.

What's a Public Service Advertisement?

Rather than focusing on selling a specific good or service, a public service advertisement aims to make the public aware of an important issue and lead them to take a specific action. For example, a community health organization might make a PSA advertisement alerting the public about the need to get vaccinated for a specific illness like the flu and encourage people to schedule an appointment for the shot. On the other hand, a local educational nonprofit might focus on the importance of literacy and encourage the community to read to their children and offer reading tutoring services to those in need.

These types of persuasive ads usually come in the form of a TV commercial, radio advertisement or print ad in a magazine or newspaper. However, the rise of social media now makes it possible for companies to place their PSAs on websites like YouTube, Facebook or even the companies' own websites.

Why PSAs Are Important

PSAs provide important benefits for both the businesses creating them and the people who hear the message. They serve to educate the community about important topics like environmental protection, education, physical and mental health, substance abuse, crime, driving safety and other issues that people in the neighborhood might face. At the same time, these ads are created to make more people aware of the issues with the goal that the audience will take action to reduce risks, increase safety or otherwise resolve the issue of focus. Therefore, they serve as a way to influence the public's opinion.

On the other hand, businesses get the benefits of free publicity and an improved company reputation from their PSAs. While the business might not tell people to buy anything from them, people who see the public broadcast announcement become more aware of the business itself, might donate to any fundraisers or campaigns, and become supporters themselves. This comes at less cost than traditional advertising since the business will only have to pay for creating the advertisement. When a business becomes known for supporting good causes in the community, it also benefits from an improved reputation, which can lead to new customers, more funds to pay for expenses and better trust throughout the community.

Benefits of Public Service Advertising

One of the top benefits of a public broadcast announcement is the low cost for the organization to reach a potentially large audience. Whether the ad airs on the TV or radio or is printed, the station or publication usually donates the airtime or ad space for the PSA, meaning a business with a small budget does not have to worry about advertising costs. On the other hand, PSAs are not entirely free since the business has to pay for all production unless it can seek volunteers and obtain donations. While video ads can be more expensive to make, production costs can be smaller for PSAs that feature only a speaker on the radio or consist of a printed announcement.

Another benefit of using a PSA advertisement is that it tends to be effective for both spreading awareness of the issue and the company sponsoring the ad. The University of Kansas suggests that including the business's contact information and using a clear call to action can increase the likelihood that the community responds to your ad's requests and becomes more interested in the work your organization does.

Disadvantages of Public Service Advertising

One of the downsides of using PSAs is the competition for limited airtime available. According to the University of Kansas, the majority of ad time is for commercial causes, so you can expect only one-third of it to be used for airing PSAs. Not only does this cause organizations to have to compete with stations and other organizations over the limited airtime, but a business's PSA might have to air at a less desirable time, like in the middle of the night. The business might not know when the ad will air either, if the station does not track this information.

PSAs are also not suitable for all topics, especially those that are controversial like politics and religion. While a business might find a station or publication to air such an ad, it will likely take a lot more work, so another advertising method may be more desirable.

Also, a PSA may not be the best choice if your organization's goal is to influence policy in a general way. Instead, this form of advertising is most successful to promote a clear and specific action.

Planning an Effective PSA

Before deciding the content and format for your PSA, your business will want to have a clear goal that you want those who view, hear or read your announcement to accomplish and ensure the topic covered relates clearly to your organization. This can require doing research on issues faced in your community and potential actions. For example, if you run a local charity for breast cancer, your goal might be to educate the public about risk factors for the disease and encourage the community to attend your walkathon or get medical screenings.

You'll also want to determine the targeted group or groups you want your public service announcement to reach and understand how to best make them respond to your message. For example, you might target women ages 40 and over for an ad on breast cancer detection, while you might target elderly adults of both sexes for an ad on the dangers of falls in that age group. Knowing your target group or groups will help you choose the best presentation style when you later structure the ad.

After you know your audience and goal, you'll want to come up with a few memorable points you want to bring up, avoiding trying to cram too much into the ad. In the previous example, you might highlight a few key statistics on breast cancer risk and the importance of early detection. You might also incorporate a catchy slogan that will stick with those your advertisement reaches.

Structuring Your PSA

According to the University of Kansas, most PSAs on the radio and TV are one minute or less; creating 15- or 30-second PSAs is also common. Even print PSAs should be a reasonable length to read within a minute or so. This limited time means structuring an effective PSA requires grabbing the audience's attention from the start, stating your points concisely, using dramatic elements when possible and making your call to action stand out. At the same time, you'll want to have a clear introduction, message and conclusion to make the ad flow well.

The introduction is where you should immediately introduce the topic and grab the audience's attention with something like an intriguing question, beginning of a personal story or a description. For a breast cancer charity, the introduction might introduce a survivor and present a statistic about how common the condition is for women. Dramatic background music can also play to set the stage for an audio or video ad.

The message portion of the PSA is where to include more details about the person's story, statistics or background information and show how the problem also affects the target audience and/or their families. This is also the place to introduce your organization and connect it to the topic discussed. In the previous example, the charity might mention how it holds events for raising funds to fight cancer and increase awareness of free breast cancer screening events.

The conclusion of the PSA advertisement should include an emotional, ethical or logical appeal to the audience to perform the desired action the organization wants. At the same time, it includes information about the company such as its website address or phone number. The charity in the previous example might tell the audience to schedule a screening soon and lead them to the organization's website to learn more about breast cancer detection.

Pitching Your PSA

You can actually begin pitching your PSA before you've even finished writing it, or you can wait until after you've completed it. In either case, you will want to look for potential media outlets or publications that can air or print it. When doing so, you'll again want to consider your target audience so that your message gets out to them. While a beauty magazine or local news channel would be a good place for a PSA about a women's health issue, a radio station with mostly male listeners would not be.

It helps to have some media contacts your organization has worked with before. But if you don't, you can reach out by phone or visit local media outlets and ask to speak to whoever handles ad programming or manages the station. You'll want to ask about PSA requirements to learn when you should submit it, which format and length they prefer you use, and what type of information they need about your organization. For example, a radio station might ask for proof that your organization is a nonprofit and does not intend to air an ad to sell a product.

If you're pitching to a radio or TV station, the pitching process is also a good time to find out if and how the station approves and tracks your campaign. Mediatracks Communications cautions that some busy stations do not even follow up about their decision to air a PSA, so be prepared to call back yourself to find out if the ad campaign is active. You'll also want to ask about how frequently the station expects to air the campaign so that you can consider that exposure along with your other media campaigns.

Considering Alternatives to PSAs

If your business is not a nonprofit, civic or governmental group and wants to instead promote some commercial cause, then a traditional PSA is not made for that purpose. But that does not mean you can't find other ways to advertise your company's offerings and share information without spending a lot.

Online marketing campaigns in the form of videos, search engine and social media ads, email and blogging can all help you spread your message for free or little cost. If you're already paying for a company website, then you can use it to post announcements and media or even partner with other organizations to have them promote you on their websites. You can also consider attending local events that allow businesses to donate their time or give talks as well as hang up flyers around your community.