WHAT IS A PSA?
A PSA, or Public Service Announcement, is essentially a commercial that can be found on television, radio, billboards, online, direct mail and in print. However, unlike a traditional commercial, a PSA is primarily designed to inform and educate rather than sell a product or service. The goal of a PSA is not to make a big sale, but rather to change public opinion and raise awareness for a problem. The strategy here is to educate first and provoke a feeling and reaction after that. Sometimes money is solicited, although usually in contribution to a not for profit organization or cause.
One of the most well-known series of PSA’s in the last decade has come from truth, a national campaign aimed at eliminating teen smoking in the United States. When “truth” launched its campaign in 1999, the teen smoking rate was 23%. In 2016, that number was down to 6%. The “truth” PSA is intended to be shocking, using a “sledgehammer” approach to facts, and hitting people over the head with information that cannot be ignored. Most recently, texting and driving ads have become the most hard-hitting. These PSA’s hope to curb an epidemic, with 1 in 4 car accidents now being caused by texting and driving in the USA.
Here are examples of compelling Public Service Announcements:
YOUR PURPOSE: The very first thing you should decide about your PSA campaign is what you’re trying to accomplish. This is what people refer to as an “Ask.” After watching or reading your PSA, your audience should be inspired and knowledgeable enough to take action. Keep in mind as you are trying to create an effective PSA that it can be difficult to narrow down a poignant message that clearly captures the outcome you’re trying to achieve. Keep it simple; try and focus on summarizing your goal into a single strong sentence. (See examples above: “Tobacco kills 1200 people a day. Ever think of taking a day off?” and “It Can Wait”).
- Your Audience: Knowing who your audience will be is an important component of crafting your Ask. You want to be able to tailor the message to the specific abilities and resources available to the audience you’re targeting. If your PSA is more focused on public awareness of an issue, then your audience can be more general with an Ask that focuses instead on shaping a helpful mindset.
YOUR FORMAT: Determine your PSA medium (television, radio, print, etc.). The audience, timing, cost, and ease of production will differ based on the medium you choose. (Television is the most expensive; radio can be the least expensive if you use scripted PSAs.) Keep in mind your target audience and your budget, and review the pros and cons of each.
- Television: Television generally is the most sought-after PSA medium; therefore it’s the most competitive. Factors like production quality, preferred format, and proper presentation are even more important. A 30-second spot is the most often used in both television and radio.
- Radio: Radio has many advantages. Because radio stations cater to specific audiences, it’s easy to target your message. Overall, radio reaches a large audience inexpensively, since many stations accept print copies of PSAs (called scripts) to be read by an announcer or disc jockey.
- Print: Print PSA campaigns have relatively low production and distribution costs. However, it’s essential to target your media carefully, and if using newspapers or magazines, you will need to work with publishers or advertising directors.
- Outdoors: When used to inform the public about public causes, outdoor billboards provide many different communications advantages, and today, the outdoor billboard industry includes “outdoor furniture”, or signage comprised of bus shelters, benches and just about anyplace else where people congregate.
YOUR PROCESS: When you’re ready to get started, the following steps can guide you through the process of creating your PSA. (Note: Some of these are specific to a video PSA):
- Gather Information: An effective PSA should paint a well-rounded picture of the scope of the problem or agenda you’re trying to put in place. During your information-gathering process, you should look for relevant statistics, facts, anecdotes, and personal stories (depending on your topic) to highlight the importance of what you are trying to do. This will serve as the heart of your PSA campaign and help you write the narrative of what you’ll be sharing.
- Use Your Media Authentically: The core idea of a PSA is that it generates change, and the only way it can do that is by gaining visibility and inspiring people to action. While you are crafting your PSA, use your media platform (i.e. video, radio show, shareable image) in a way that grabs people’s attention and creates an emotional incentive for them to follow through with your ask. That being said, some key things you should try to avoid in your PSAs are:
- Melodramatic representations of your issue— Entrenching your PSA with over-the-top dramatizations can distract from your ask and even make your message seem inauthentic. Other compelling ways to engage your audience might instead include, slogans, imagery, real stories, or possibly even skilled media editing.
- Including unnecessary information — Your PSA should be concise while still offering a sincere call to action. It’s critical that the stories, testimonies, and facts that you feature in your PSA contribute meaningfully to the message you’re trying to convey and are not loaded too heavily with unrelated details.
- Create Your Script: Keep on track with your vision by creating a script to detail your content. Be considerate of the proposed length (or size) of your PSA when drafting and try stick to the ideas of WHO is being affected, WHY they are being affected, and WHAT the audience can do about it. If you’re engaging a person to share their story, suggest bullet points of what they should talk about, rather than writing something they will read. By having them focused more on the central ideas that they are going to speak on rather than the words, their voice will sound less scripted and their story more authentic.
- Editing and Story Boarding: Before you begin filming, you should have a rough idea of what visual shots you’re hoping to catch with your camera. You might want to consider creating a storyboard to detail the angle and content you’re hoping to capture. This will help you avoid unnecessary or redundant filming and hopefully cut down on your editing time.
Resources For Creating a PSA
Online resources will vary based on which format you choose, but here are a few options that will get you started:
Tutorials & Ideas
Print Resources (including Outdoors)