A public service announcement is a non-commercial message directed toward the public and the community. Public service announcements, or PSAs as they’re often called, are most common on television and radio due to the Federal Communication Commission’s requirement of stations to run a minimum amount of programming and information for the community.
Public service announcements are often used to help the public become aware of social issues, or to help promote the ideas and agendas of non-profit organizations. They may also be used to promote an upcoming event sponsored by a particular organization. You may have seen or heard popular public service announcements promoting the harmful effects of cigarettes or PSAs supporting organizations for people with disabilities.
Once produced, PSAs are then delivered from the organization, typically a charity or community group, to local radio and television stations around the country. Stations then enter the PSA into their commercial rotation, intertwining these announcements with commercial announcements from companies. The television and radio stations don’t receive any compensation for airing PSAs.
Because PSAs needs to compete for attention from glossy commercial ads, public service announcements are no longer simple messages with low production values. Today’s PSAs are more interesting and expensive to produce than ever. This is true for PSAs on both television and radio.
Fortunately, radio PSAs are relatively inexpensive to produce. This is due to several factors. First of all, radio announcements only require a basic script, appropriate music, a quality voice to deliver the message, and perhaps some sound effects. Producers and sound engineers craft the announcement, both on paper and in the editing studio, until it is as effective as possible.
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Choosing The Correct Approach
When choosing how to present a public service announcement to the public or community, it is important to consider the proper approach. There are many factors to consider when choosing how to produce a PSA, including choosing the target market, and determining the PSA’s purpose.
First of all, the writer must determine the target market. Who will listen to the public service announcement? Remember, to the audience, a public service announcement is just another commercial, so the production values must have a similar quality to every other ad being aired on that particular station. Most PSA producers make separate versions of their announcements for different types of stations. Since radio stations segment their audience by age and gender (demographics), as well as lifestyle (psychographics), the PSA producer must cater to the station’s specific audience in order to provide any real value.
As an example, pretend you’re a producer creating a pubic service announcement to educate young adults about the dangers of drunk driving. After some research, you’ve determined your target market to be college students and recent graduates; in other words, men and women between the ages of 18 and 25. After further research, you’ve discovered that people in your target markets listen to the local alternative rock and hip hop stations. Coincidentally, both of these stations also claim their demographic to be men and women between the ages of 18 and 25, a perfect match for your announcement.
Once the demographic has been determined, the producer must write an announcement relevant to the target audience’s psychographics. The producer must choose appropriate words and lingo that relate to the selected audience, as well as appropriate music and announcers. Combining the appropriate elements will help the listener react positively to the announcement, and will also help the announcement fit in with the ads on the station.
The producer must also take into account the PSA’s purpose when creating a campaign, or even a single ad. What is the specific action the PSA is meant to incite? Should the announcement inform listeners about the risk of an unhealthy diet, inciting them to eat more vegetables? Does the announcement want to educate listeners about threat of flu outbreaks in the local area, inciting them to get flu shots? The message in the PSA should be very clear, and have a call to action, even if subliminally. An example is of announcements that explain the results of a lifetime of smoking without actually asking the listener to quit smoking; the action is implied.
Most public service announcements discuss the issue at hand, and not the related organization’s mission or goals. PSAs focus on delivering a message about a societal issue, and rarely focus their attention on a specific organization’s own operations. This is typically avoided since some consider promoting an organization’s mission in a PSA a conflict of interest. Some stations may also refuse to air the PSA because of its unintentional commercial message. An example would be an announcement about heart disease from a local hospital specializing in heart surgery. Although a line at the end of the PSA stating “This message brought to you by XYZ Hospital” would be acceptable, including a message such as “At XYZ Hospital, we’ve been helping save patients’ lives since 1956” would not be acceptable. As can be seen by this example, there is a fine line between shameless self-promotion and a legitimate message for the public good.
Public service announcements have traditionally been structured like commercials, attempting to grab the listener’s attention and delivering a relevant message with the intention of educating the listener and inciting an action. Although this is the most effective way to produce a successful announcement, it is important to include all of the important information in the announcement.
Public service announcements fall in two time-related categories: timely and non-timely. Timely announcements are those that may inform the public of an upcoming community event. In other words, timely announcements have a set expiration date. Non-timely announcements are those that may inform the listener about a specific long-term cause, such as helping to protect the environment. In other words, non-timely announcements have a longer usefulness term and may be used for years before needing to be updated or discarded.
Every PSA must include the important information needed for the listener to take action. If the announcement is timely, such as a local blood drive, it must include important date, time, and location information. In other words, the listener would not be able to act positively to the message without this information. If the announcement is not timely, such as a “quit smoking” campaign or a “help save the environment” campaign, the message should focus on providing the facts about the cause, rather than information about a specific event. Most non-timely public service announcements are typically written to educate the public, as well as incite the listener to become involved by either volunteering or donating money.
A vital difference between an announcement for a commercial product and an announcement for a community message is in their language. While commercials may use artificial language and situations, public service announcements use everyday language. This helps the listener relate to the message on a more personal level than a commercial that includes a lot of hype and pretension. The language is also much more colloquial and casual, helping to create an easier connection between the announcer and the listener.
The language typically used in successful announcements, commercial or non-profit, uses emotion to help incite a positive reaction from the listener. Emotion is typically based on a need or desire on the part of the listener. For example, a listener may hear a commercial for a television program or movie and want to watch it based on a desire to experience laughter or dramatic tension. The same applies to public service announcements, invoking an emotional response from the listener in order to make them act on that emotion. For example, a public service announcement may want the listener to donate money to help feed children in poor countries, so including lines such as “just one dollar a day can help feed a hungry child” or “one dollar, less than the price of a cup of coffee, can help a starving child survive” will incite the listener to action because of their emotional response.
A well-written PSA will focus on a single core message. By narrowing the message’s focus, the audience is more likely to understand it and associate with it. Remember, most PSAs last only 30 seconds or 60 seconds, barely enough time to engage the audience and make them care about your message. By focusing the message, the writer uses the entire duration to connect with the issue at hand and also lowers the risk of the listener getting confused or losing interest.
Always identify the organization associated with the announcement. Since public service announcements usually have a call to action, it is important for the public to know with whom they will be acting. Even if the identifier must come at the end of the announcement with the short line “this message brought to you by (organization)”, it is always important to include it. Most PSAs also include some sort of contact information for the organization sponsoring the message. Typical forms of contact information including in PSAs are telephone numbers or web addresses. Using Sound Effects and Music
Sometimes a PSA may be more effective when not using music or sound effects. Just as with any other type of radio production, only the appropriate elements should be included in the PSA. Using a sound effect because it’s interesting or funny may not be in the best interest of the announcement. Likewise, using music may actually detract attention from the important message if used inappropriately. Does this mean the writer should not use sound effects or music? Not necessarily. The writer should be cautious in choosing sound effects and music, just as he or she should be cautious when choosing the appropriate words to include in the announcement. Depending on the situation, a voice-only announcement may be more effective than one that pulls out all of the stops.
A Sample 60-Second PSA
Heart disease affects millions of Americans, and claims thousands of lives each year. Known as the silent killer, heart disease may strike when you least expect it. It can affect both men and women, young and old. Your mother or father, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, even you.
Early detection is the key to preventing this life-shattering illness. Visit your doctor today for a complete heart scan. Remember, early detection is the key to saving your life, or the life of a loved one. This message is brought to you as a public service from the American Heart Association. W-W-W Dot American Heart Dot Org.