How to Know When Your Organization Needs a PSA

When was the last bullhorntime you had your broadcast interrupted for an important public service announcement or PSA? When was the last time you did the interrupting- either for your own cause or on behalf of a client? If you are doing public relations outreach especially for a non-profit organization, public service announcements when done right, can be a great way to spread the word about your cause.

I spoke to Dan Lyons, an expert in PSA production, to get insight on how to create a PSA and when. His firm has created award-winning PSAs for national non-profits, federal agencies and trade associations. Here Dan shares his experience with PSAs.

Mopwater: What is a radio PSA and who needs one? DL: A PSA or public service announcement is a tool to generate awareness, educate the public about important issues, and encourage positive behavior. In our case, the platform for these messages is radio, so our PSAs are geared to engage radio listeners.
Radio PSAs tackle a variety of topics, including consumer safety, education, health, environment, family, etc.  They’re an ideal communications tool for non-profit organizations, trade associations or federal agencies that are striving to reach core audiences with key information and raise awareness for a cause.

Mopwater: What considerations should an organization or company make before developing a radio PSA campaign? Should they hire a professional copywriter or voiceover? DL: If an organization chooses to develop and produce a radio PSA on their own, there are several factors to keep in mind. First off, they need to be mindful about their intended audience—are you trying to reach a certain demographic, a certain region, or are you creating for general appeal.

Next, while the overall concept of a PSA campaign can be utilized across a variety of media platforms, radio PSAs need to be created for the ear.  With radio, you don’t have visuals to capture the attention of your intended audience. You must capture the listeners’ attention, set the tone, and provide a reason to keep listening within the first 5-10 seconds of a PSA. This can be accomplished with a strong script, distinct voices, various music beds or sound effects. For example, one of our PSAs begins with a middle-aged man with obvious angst in his voice stating, “My son was drinking too much…” accompanied by dramatic music. Instantly, the scene is set. On the opposite side of the spectrum, one of our PSAs features the sound effect of a toilet flushing in the first few seconds (nobody said writing PSAs couldn’t be fun.) Very different approach, similar results. Both PSAs have educated listeners and received thousands of airplays on radio stations around the country.

Radio PSAs must be broadcast quality, top-notch productions, and ready for air. Professional voicetalent is highly recommended. Unless you have a recognizable voice (aka celebrity or public official) or someone within your organization with a “voice for radio,” professional voice talent can lend instant credibility to your PSA campaign. Copywriters can also be helpful, and if you attempt on your own, you need ensure that you’re “writing for radio.”

Other radio PSA tips–PSAs should be evergreen, and scripted so they are relevant for a period of at least several months.  Offer different timed versions of your PSA, the most common being :60 seconds and :30 seconds. Provide scripts of you PSA for live DJ reads and offer PSAs with a “donut” where stations can add their own local information.

Do you have any statistics about responses to radio PSAs? How do you know that they’re effective? DL: On average, our national radio PSA campaigns receive airplay in over 100 markets around the country, and reach millions of listeners. Radio reaches 90% of the U.S. population 12 and older each week, and 4-out-of-5 adults listen to the radio in their car each week. Radio PSAs are a cost-effective and high-impact tool to reach out to these listeners and motivate them to take action.

For many of our PSA campaigns, as soon as it begins to air, our clients begin to see spikes in their website traffic, and an increase in calls if a toll free number is provided.
However, the impact of certain types of PSAs can be harder to measure because they encourage an on-going change in behavior, as such is the case with our PSAs encouraging designated drivers. But we do know that as drunk driving fatalities decline, our PSAs are playing a part. I always like to think that if a PSA stops just one person from drinking and driving, and saves a life, it’s effective and worthwhile.

Further, online radio listenership is at an all-time high, one in five Americans aged 25- to 54- years-old listen to online radio on a weekly basis. This greatly benefits our campaign because PSAs are often used in heavy rotation on radio station online streams.

Mopwater: In your experience, what characteristics make for a really effective radio PSA? DL: Here’s part of the reason I’m passionate about PSA campaigns, and really enjoy working with the Lyons PR team on creating them. There are no strict rules or guidelines for what constitutes an effective PSA. Successful PSAs can be straight reads with no music beds or sound effects, while others are mutli-track productions, heavy on both. Above all, an effective radio PSA will clearly communicate a message or cause, and successfully educate listeners and prompt action.

One of our most successful PSA campaigns aired over 37,000 times around the country and earned us a PRSA Bronze Anvil award. It was also the most unconventional PSA we have ever produced. In homage to the classic movie trailer, we produced a radio PSA complete with the “deep voiced movie trailer guy” and the dramatic choral music. The subject was tire safety, but presented in this manner, it effectively engaged the listener and prompted positive behavior, in this case, checking tire pressure.

Mopwater: If a company is in the middle of a communications crisis, for example the recent Toyota recall, is that a good time to produce and run a radio PSA campaign? DL: PSAs need to be totally non-commercial, so it wouldn’t be an outreach tool a company would use for crisis communications.  To effectively integrate radio into corporate crisis communications outreach, radio media tours or radio news releases are the best way to disseminate information quickly and get a spokesperson on the air.

Mopwater: What is the ultimate goal of a PSA? DL: The goal of a PSA is to influence positive behavior, educate listeners about important issues or a cause, and stimulate action. Ultimately, a PSA can be the first step in engaging listeners to take action, whether it’s changing behavior in their every day life or visiting a website to learn more about a cause.

In what instances should an organization NOT do a PSA? DL: If you’re trying to sell something or promote a brand—do not do a PSA. This would be a waste of time and money, and stations will not air.  And if you need the information to air quickly, for a very limited amount of time, a PSA would not be the right tool.

Dan Lyons in Founder and CEO of Lyons PR, a public relations firm based in Kensington, MD right outside of Washington, DC.

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