First PSA Symposium - "Great ideas, New Directions" Judged a Huge Success

A one-day seminar about public service announcements brought together about 50 federal and state communicators and about 50 producers, ad agency representatives, and corporate public relations officials. Conference co-sponsors, Arbitron, Inc. and Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, titled the session "Great Ideas, New Directions" and billed it as the first conference dedicated exclusively to the design, production and distribution PSAs.

Held in Washington, D.C.'s, Madison Hotel, the program included several well-credentialed speakers and examples of what constitutes good and bad PSAs. The program focused on sharing production and marketing tips to improve station play, with the emphasis on television.

Speaking on new strategies and trends in PSAs for the '90s, Bob Druckenmiller, executive vice president of Porter/Novelli, Inc., observed that the average cost to produce a commercial spot way back in 1987 was $145,600. Larger advertisers generally spend $200,000 and more, Druckenmiller said. PSAs, which are produced for less, must compete for the viewer's attention in a marketplace cluttered with a myriad of messages, many with very high production values. He also pointed out that up to 61 percent of all PSAs distributed to TV stations are sent in the wrong format. Druckenmiller counseled PSA distributors to do a better job of matching spots to a station's technical requirements and saying "thank you to cooperative broadcasters who run PSAs. All too often, he noted, there is no follow-tip after stations are sent PSAs.

Mega Campaigns

What PSAs receive the most attention these days? At the conference the answer was obvious. Measured in terms of production money being spent and amount of air time received, campaigns about the prevention of drug abuse and spots designed to thwart the spread of AIDS dwarf all others. Ogilvy & Mather's president for public affairs was on hand to review his company's successful (and sometimes controversial) AIDS PSAs. Steve Rabin produced many of these spots for the Office of the Surgeon General.

Speaking after Rabin was Rose Mary Romano, chief of the National Institute of Health's Public Information Branch, Office of Smoking and Health. Romano described today's PSA environment as "schizophrenic," because viewers have too many information channels from which to get information on social issues, and stations have been deregulated, eliminating many reporting requirements that dictated a greater use of PSAs. Among the tips she shared with those attending:

  • Invest most of your time and resources in the creative process. Remember that your PSA must often compete for available time with AIDS or drugs "megacampaigns." A heavy investment up front will produce a more competitive spot in the end.
  • Consider doing away with "bounce-back cards" and using a telemarketing source or doing telephone surveys to measure the effectiveness of a PSA distribution. Buy a monitoring service if you can afford it, such as Arbitron's BAR Reports, or Nielsen's new tracking service called SIGMA.

Statewide PSAs

Providing a state perspective was Virginia Newman, who handles AIDS public information for Florida. Newman explained her state's special fee arrangement with Florida broadcasters associations, which nets her office $1 million in spot TV time for a $250,000 investment.

Florida's AIDS PSAs are aired as "non-sustaining commercial announcements." This guarantees air play in all day parts and provides the state with a "notarized affidavit of performance. Many conference attendees challenged the wisdom of this and expressed concern with the idea of paying what amounts to a placement fee for the preferential treatment. Several warned that this trend could hurt other worthy causes that are not well funded and must rely on traditional free PSA airtime. Newman acknowledged the concerns, but claimed the Florida payments to broadcaster associations did not seem to be having any negative effects on other public service campaigns.

Broadcast Standards

An enlightening address by ABC-TV's Chris Hikawa focused on the chances of getting PSAs aired on network television. Ms. Hikawa is the network's vice president for broadcast standards. She revealed that ABC and the other TV networks receive 1,500 PSAs per year from hundreds of organizations. She advised all PSA producers to clear scripts with the networks prior to production to avoid spending money on a spot that does not meet network standards.

According W Hikawa, 30 seconds is the preferred length for a spot on the network, but 15-second spots are also very desirable. For network use, the subject matter addressed by a PSA must be national in scope and not be political or controversial. Hikawa underscored that corporate names must not appear in PSAs. Also, there must be no direct solicitation of funds from viewers. Every PSA used on ABC must include the name of the sponsoring organization, Hikawa said. PSAs do not compete for time with commercials on ABC because each is scheduled separately.

She claimed that availability of PSA time slots is good today because all networks are making frequent program schedule changes. She noted that when programs of shorter length are moved into longer time slots, there is often not enough time to sell commercial minutes, opening up more available slots for PSAs.

Comments from Gold Screen Judge and the Ad Council

Next spoke two-time NAGC Gold Screen Judge Roger Vilsak, a respected Washington-based producer of PSAs for the Coast Guard, Selective Service, Savings Bonds, and others. Using many examples from U.S. and British television, Vilsak demonstrated how to produce award-winning, eyecatching spots.

The luncheon speaker was Ruth Wooden, president of The Advertising Council. She described her organization's role in public service advertising and screened recent spots produced to combat drug abuse. Wooden predicted some trends in PSAs, such as a renewed focus in America to solve community problems, with media informational campaigns playing a pivotal role.

Focus on the Drug Problem

Anti-drug PSAs and distribution/evaluation tactics dominated the afternoon sessions. An absorbing presentation was given by Tom Hedrick, executive director for "The Media Advertising Partnership for a Drug-Free America." Hedrick stipulated the continuing need to "sell" the media on the importance of their cooperation. His group has produced hard-hitting, emotional, memorable PSAs that have captured a lion's share of PSA time, nationwide. He shared some basic production philosophy to which he attributes his successful anti-drug campaigns:

  • Seeking to change attitudes through a PSA campaign is easier than seeking to change behavior. Attitudinal change will produce behavioral change over time.
  • Great advertising creates drama through interpersonal dialogue and strong visual images.
  • PSAs will help cure America's drug epidemic. They will reduce the demand for drugs and that will eventually force reduction in the supply of drugs.

Bill Goodwill, CEO of Goodwill Communications, reviewed the most successful tactics for distributing PSAs, how important evaluation is to the overall PSA program, and how to use evaluation data to improve the success of a non-profit's PSA program. "Our company was very proud to be involved in bringing this Symposium together," observes Bill Goodwill, and we hope there will be many more like it in the future."

Attendees went away with a better appreciation of a complex and competitive business, along with new insight on how to resolve common production and placement problems. Because so many major PSA producers in the U.S. were represented at the conference, the end result will hopefully be an overall increase in the quality of PSAs over the next few years. Tune in and find out.