How To Write A Public Service Announcement
An overview for freelance writers on how to create effective and economical public service announcements for radio and television.
The good news is that a local arts agency or community service organization has just recruited you and your freelance writing talents to put together publicity for an upcoming fundraising event. The bad news? You have absolutely no idea how best to utilize free air-time in communicating the message. Day after day, we’re subjected to public service announcements or “PSA’s” on the local airwaves. Some are outstandingly clever. Others are either woefully bland or so crammed with too much unnecessary information as to make them confusing. Here are some tips and tricks to not only make your PSA’s hit the mark but get you invited back for more assignments and referrals!
RADIO OR TELEVISION?
Local stations allocate a certain percentage of their free air-time throughout the broadcast day to promote special events and ongoing or new services of non-profit organizations. Unlike commercials, which are profit-oriented endeavors and are generally scripted, cast, and filmed by media professionals, PSA’s are grassroots “spots” which range from 15 seconds to one minute and make the most economical use of the organization’s limited resources and personnel.
The choice of which medium to use is generally contingent on the accessibility of equipment to record or film the announcement. Many organizations, for instance, opt for the versatility of radio, given that they can either have their spokespeople tape the PSA at the actual studio or record all of the material off-site and yet utilize imaginative sound effects, music, etc. to create an ambiance and paint an engaging scenario that might be cost-prohibitive if it were to be enacted visually for television. Whichever you choose, contact the appropriate advertising manager at the station first so as to ascertain the format in which material will be accepted, any pertinent use restrictions, and how far in advance new material should be submitted in order to ensure timely broadcast.
LESS IS MORE
While 15-60 seconds doesn’t seem like very much time to convey a message, it is surprising just how much can be incorporated in so small a space. In developing your PSA, you will be using the same approach as newspaper reporters and identifying the key elements of the story in their order of importance: WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, and WHY. Even a scant 15 seconds of air-time is enough to convey that the Garden Club is having an ice cream social at 2 p.m. on April 5th in McKinley Park to raise money for cancer research. While it would be nice to fluff out the piece and mention that they’ve been doing these ice cream socials for the past 25 years, that the incoming president, Mrs. Eunice Flackmeyer, will be making the welcoming speech to the public, and that the ice cream will be available with a yummy choice of berries, nuts or candy toppings and whipped cream, none of this is crucial to the PSA.
To the contrary, the shorter the time allotment for your message, the simpler it needs to be so as not to confuse the listeners/viewers with more information than they can handle at the moment. In a longer message, of course, it’s essential to repeat your key elements for reinforcement. The 3-point reinforcement rule of “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell it to them, then tell it again” is important in getting your PSA to “stick” in their minds.
You also need to keep in mind—especially with radio—that your listeners may be engaged in some other activity when your PSA airs (i.e., driving a car) and may not have immediate access to a paper and pen to write everything down. It’s for this reason that a number of PSA spots on morning and evening commute programs include a handy reference as to where listeners can call for reservations/further information (i.e., “Call your local Arthritis Association for details on the event”) or, in the case of longer messages, announce that they will be repeating the phone number at the end of the announcement.
The “stars” of your PSA can be anyone from an organizational spokesperson or celebrity to a small cast of volunteer actors. While your watchword should be “simple” in terms of production costs, this shouldn’t translate to “dull.” A testimonial from someone who has benefited from the organization’s past services or philanthropy can be just as effective, if not more so, than an imaginative skit which tells some sort of story or advances a particular point of view. Perhaps your PSA will be an endorsement from an actual member of the organization or a celebrity whose presence will lend credibility and/or prestige to the message. Yet another option is simply to utilize voice-overs along with graphics, photographs, music, or video footage. Make sure if you use someone else’s material, however, that you have abided by all copyright rules and secured the necessary releases and permission to incorporate such material in your script.
HAVING A PURPOSE
It is vital that you and your client are in agreement on what the PSA is going to say and who the target audience will be. Do you want the listeners/viewers to volunteer their time? Open their wallets? Lobby for a specific cause? You need to know what the overall intent of the message is and, accordingly, design a message that will best fit the targeted age group, gender, occupation, and educational level. For example, the more intelligent the intended audience, the higher their ability to comprehend abstract and/or multiple messages within a single framework. Younger or less savvy audiences will need the message spelled out for them via word/picture association and repetitive language.
Last of all, think of your PSA as a freeway billboard that is being viewed at 60 miles an hour. What do you most want people to remember about it? If you can conceptualize the project in that manner, you are well on your way to creating an effective PSA that your audience—and your client—will remember!