The following article was published in the Jossey-Bass Guide to Strategic Communications for Nonprofits and has been edited for style. Published with permission.

Making Paid Advertising and Public Service Announcements Work

Advertising takes a thousand forms, from skywriting and blimps to tiny labels on the fruit in your supermarket. But almost all advertising is paid communication designed to persuade or influence behavior. Advertising is a powerful force that shapes our attitudes about everything from what we eat to what car we drive to whom we vote for and which public policies we support. The nonprofit sector can use advertising to great effect, if it proceeds from an understanding of both the nature of the advertising business and its relationship to the media and their audiences.

Closely related to paid advertising, but distinguished from it by the fact that they are broadcast by media outlets  at no cost to the nonprofit organization, are  public service announcements (PSAs), designed to promote the public interest. In contrast, “earned media,” the focus of most nonprofit campaigns, results from outreach strategies designed to influence news reporting and related commentary.

It is important to know something about paid advertising and PSAs, even if your plans do not currently call for them. At some point in the future, your strategy may expand to include paid advertising, which can be invaluable for achieving your communications goals.

Advertising is a big business, with its own language, terms, and protocols that can be daunting to outsiders. Nonprofits sometimes ignore or even disclaim paid advertising in favor of PSAs—which are increasingly difficult to arrange.— Some nonprofit leaders have a passionate belief that their issues are so important that they should never have to pay for them. Although that sentiment is lofty, it is misguided for two reasons.                

First, the tools and techniques of advertising are generally adaptable to any communications strategy. Survey research, media content analysis, focus groups, and other components of a sophisticated communications strategy all started in the world of commercial advertising. Focus groups are a good example. Before launching a multimillion-dollar national ad campaign, you should test your themes and language on scientifically selected groups that represent potential audiences. That way, you can catch potential flaws or make refinements to your strategy before committing serious resources.        

Second, paid advertising can jump-start a media outreach campaign and is a useful complement to it over the long term. A recent example is the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which has consistently used newspaper ads to reinforce its highly successful efforts at obtaining news coverage.

Many public education campaigns over the years have bought space on a prominent op-ed page like that of the New York Times as part of an introductory or launch strategy.

Do not automatically assume that advertising is too expensive for your organization. Advertising need not break your organization’s budget. Inexpensive but effective campaigns can be developed and can help pay the costs. For example, a full-page nationwide ad in the New York Times might normally cost $75,000. But a small organization like the Native Forest Council in Eugene, Oregon, had good results with a full-page ad placed only in selected editions of the paper on a space available basis that guaranteed that the ad would appear at some time within a fourteen-day period. The total cost under these conditions was reduced to about $8,000.

Another way to make a newspaper ad more affordable is to join forces with other groups to purchase a “signature ad” that carries the names of prominent individuals and sponsoring organizations, all of  whom share some portion of the ad’s cost. This strategy can also have value as an organizing tool. Getting groups to agree on ad copy is a good way to find their common ground. When the ad is published, it gives exposure to all of the signatories in the context of working toward a common goal. You can include a coupon or toll-free phone number to ask readers and viewers to send in contributions. But realize that fundraising ads rarely, if ever, pay for themselves.

Commercials on local TV stations can also be surprisingly affordable, at rates ranging from $100 for thirty seconds in small-town markets to as much as $20,000 for thirty seconds in a major metropolitan area. Likewise, thirty-second local radio ads can range from less than $1 to $1,500, depending on market size.

When the news media report favorably on your issue, it gains credibility for having passed through the editorial filter or screening process, but may not be the message you wanted to convey. Paid advertising on the other hand offers the advantages of control-in terms of message timing, frequency and targeting, often lacking in an earned media campaign.

Timing & Targeting

A full-page newspaper ad can reach journalists and other opinion leaders on the morning of an important announcement, vote, or other event. You can gain full control of the timing, but you will pay for the privilege. Advertisers want to know that people of the targeted age, sex, race, or income will see their message. Picking the right station for your radio spot, for example, can reliably deliver a message to specific groups, such as woman over age sixty-five. Also, when you pay for an ad, you dictate what it says and how it says it.

Guidelines When Considering Advertising

The first rule of advertising is to find a good agency. Like a travel agent who receives a commission from the airline, advertising agencies make commissions from the media outlets where the ads are placed. Agents receive 15 percent of the gross amount spent, whether the ad appears in a print or broadcast outlet. Placing ads through an agency will not cost you any more than doing it yourself and it will almost certainly spare you considerable confusion and headaches. If you buy $10,000 worth of time yourself, you'll get what $10,000 buys you. If you place it through an agency, you'll still get $10,000 worth of time, but your agency will receive $1,500 from the station for handling the process.

You will also receive the benefit of their professional guidance and experience. When you find an agency, talk to them about whom you want to reach, how long the campaign should run, and how to get people to write or call for information. Remember that radio and TV ads depend on repetition. If you can only afford to run an ad once, choose another medium. Radio is usually more affordable than TV for organizations with little money, and can be just as effective. When you start talking with an ad agency, you should know these basic advertising concepts:

  • Cost per thousand, or CPM (the M comes from the Latin mille, meaning ‘’thousand’’), refers to the dollars-and cent cost of using a particular time slot to reach a thousand people in a given audience.

  • Program rating is the percentage of the entire U.S. audience that was tuned in to a specific program, as determined by the A.C. Nielsen Company. (Ratings are sometimes called Nielsen’s.)There are 93 million households with T.V set, so if a show’s rating is 15,the viewing audience was 0.15*93 million, or 13.95 million households.

  • Program share is the number of household that watched the program divided by the number that actually had their TV on at that time. This is a useful calculation that show the relative strength of programs in a given time slot. The size of the viewing audience swells dramatically during the mid- evening hours of 8 to 11 p.m., also know as prime time. An audience share of 15 is much larger at 10 P.M than at 10 AM because more people are watching in the evening.

  • Fringe time consists of the hours leading up to and just after prime time. This is when most local news programs are aired. Other familiar time slots are daytime, when soap operas and tabloid talk shows rule, and late night, the domain of jay Leno, and David Letterman.

  • In radio, the biggest listening audiences occur during drive time, or the weekend morning and afternoon rush hours, which are known as the AM drive and the PM drive.

  Cross-Media Campaigns

Another important concept is that of an integrated or cross-media advertising campaign. This uses several media, including broadcast outlets like TV and radio stations, print ads in newspapers and magazines, outdoor ads or billboards, transit ads that go the side of buses and inside subway or rail cars, direct mail, and specialty ads or trinkets imprinted with a name or slogan.

A full-scale cross-media promotion may not be suited to a campaign on controversial social issues. Because they relate to policy questions, nonprofit campaigns often focus on politically aware people and other influential. They may therefore be limited to newspaper advertising and to broadcasts during the “news adjacencies, “that is, the time slots directly before and after (and sometimes during) news programming on TV and radio.

Using similar targeting to reach influential, you might want to limit your buy of cable time to an all-news network such as CNN. We may think of CNN as global in reach, but it has locally available time slots, or “avails, “which are highly targetable, because they only reach people in the cable system’s geographic service areas.

ROS Placements and Other Cost Savers

When timing is not a main consideration, many nonprofits have found they can save considerable money by opting for a placement that is guaranteed only within a given window of ten days or so, or one that is plugged into a TV or radio station as slots become available. On the broadcast side, this is known as a Run-of-Station (ROS) placement. It can represent savings of 50 percent or more over time-specific placements.

Some outlets have special rates for advocacy advertising, as well as special protocols and staff just to handle them. Local groups might be charged less then national organizations. Be sure that your agency inquires about discounts for local nonprofits or political ads.

For example, TV and radio stations are required to offer the same rate to political ads as they give to their heaviest advertisers. This is sometimes called the lowest unit rate. Your spots may fit under the station’s own definition of a political ad, even if you have not produced it with that intention.

Clearance Challenges                    

Clearance is a challenge with most issue advertising. Each radio and TV station has different standards for accepting an ad. For hard-edged ads that attack a company for polluting or that mentions the word abortion, for example, expect a 30 to 50 percent turndown rate among TV stations with little chance of appeal. Network-affiliated stations frequently rely on advice from the network’s office of standards and practices for clearance, which may require scripts or storyboards to be submitted in advance of placement.

Therefore, if your goal is to purchase significant airtime, you will need advance clearance from the networks. You may also plan a purposefully controversial campaign, which you know will be turned down by many stations.

This strategy is aimed at attaining news coverage about the spot rather than extensive placement of it. The group physicians for social responsibility produced such as sport shortly before the 1991 Gulf War, showing soldiers coming home in body bags. Only CNN would consider running it, but clips of the spot appeared on several network news programs.

You must decide in advance which path to take with a controversial spot. If you want to avoid turndowns, you may have to choose between a message that can “clear” the networks and the message you would like to send. Local radio stations, even network-affiliated stations, are generally more relaxed in their approach to issue advertising.

Because radio can be more easily targeted, issue advertising through radio is also an excellent way to reach key constituencies. A good issue advertising media plan will have significant radio placements built into the budget, either to reach selected audiences or to use if TV is unavailable. Often, issue advertising has an “action” associated with the spot, such as a toll-free number to call or a post office box number for responses by mail. It is good to remember that TV elicits a much better response than radio. Here again, when you make placement considerations, you must weigh radio’s easier clearance against the higher response levels and higher viewer ship that TV offers.


PSAs are effective ways of raising public awareness about an issue, recruiting volunteers, and informing the public of an upcoming event. PSAs are messages “in the public interest” that are usually run for nonprofit organization about programs and services that will benefit a community. PSAs may appear as print or broadcast ads, as banners on the internet, or as donated billboards. How ever, PSAs are more prevalent in broadcast media than in newspapers, because stations have licensing requirements to serve the public interest, whereas newspapers do not share this obligation.

PSAs for broadcast on either radio or TV are generally fifteen or thirty-second spots. Stations donate the time and determine when the spots will air. More and more often, PSAs are presented as a joint effort of the sponsoring agency and the station. Stations encourage PSAs to typically include a phone number or Website so that their audience can obtain more information.

PSAs are submitted on paper, audiotape, or videotape, as required by the station. Print ads vary in size, depending on the   publications layout and available space. If your ads produced on disk using a common graphics program, the publication can easily reformat the ad to fit the space available if you have camera-ready copy but not a disk it is  best  to produce ads in a variety of sizes. When considering PSAs they get read and people tend to keep them around for a long time unlike a daily newspaper.

Banners on the Internet can get your PSA into cyberspace. Microsoft announced a public service campaign to provide five million impressions on the Internet for childrens causes. The internet Advertising Bureau, can answer questions about available space.

Although the space and time for PSAs are free, production is not, and the cost can vary, depending on whether you pay an advertising agency to produce a campaign for you, whether you get them to do it pro bono, or whether you have the radio station produce the spot.

Whatever route you choose, you should have clear objectives for your PSA campaign and a specific audience in mind. Ads should be memorable, relevant, and  believable, and they should provide information that audiences can act on, rather than just generate name recognition or public awareness.

Remember, too, that hundreds of new PSAs are distributed to radio and TV stations each month and competition for public service time and space is very intense. Although neither radio nor TV station are now required to donate a specific amount of time to PSAs, stations are obligated (as a condition of their FCC licenses) to determine local needs and to respond to the communities they serve. Their airing PSAs provides concrete evidence that they met their public interest obligation.

There are ways to make yours stand out from the rest and improve its chances of airing. Here are a few simple steps to follow:

  • Watch, read, and listen to local media. Become a student of PSAs. Watch for them on your local TV and cable stations and in your newspapers.

  • Listen for them on the radio. Knowing what types of spots your local media use gives you an opening when working to place PSAs.

  • Make a call, or surf the internet. To ensure that PSAs receive regular airtime and print space in your community, make personal contact with the public service manager responsible for PSAs placement. Call the station or newspaper, and ask whom you should contact about placing a PSA (often that person’s title is public service director).

  • Knowing the right person to contact is important, as these gatekeepers decide which PSAs will be awarded time and space, as well as when they will appear. Another good place to start is the internet. TV and radio stations may post PSA information on their Web sites.

  • Make personal contact the key to success.  After you have found the name of the person in charge of PSAs, set up a meeting with that person. Personal contact is the best way to have PSAs placed, because it gives public service managers a local connection to your issue.

  • Be prepared. Preparation for a face-to-face meeting can mean the difference between enjoying success and having your PSA site on the shelf. Here’s a basic list of questions you should ask yourself before every meeting:

    • What are the key points I want to make?
    • What specific action do I want from the news organization?>
    • Have I identified the right decision maker?
    • Do I have enough material to show that the PSA responds to a community need?
    • Should I bring a community leader to the meeting to show that my issue has support?
    • During your meeting, make sure to do the following:
      • Discuss your issue. Give the facts, using local, state, and national data.
      • Highlight programs going on in your area, and show how support can reinforce the station's favorable public image.
      • Explain why the issue is a priority in your community. Personalize the issue as much as possible. Being able to tell stories as you share facts will help you communicate with public service managers. But be clear that your interest is in raising awareness of the larger issue, not just in one case.
      • Remember to leave pertinent materials with the media outlet. These materials can include samples of response mechanisms or fulfillment brochures and lists of relevant contacts and programs in your community.
      • Determine whether any follow-up, such as providing additional information, is needed,  particularly if questions arise that cannot be fully resolved during the meeting.

    Verify your next steps. If the media outlet agrees to run the PSA, ask the manager to send you a list of airtimes or print times. Confirm that the station will run a local tag line with your organization’s name and phone number. If the station has agreed to produce an original spot, then work to develop a script that highlights your message.

    Do not take no for an answer. If you cannot get a commitment to run the PSA. Find out why. Are they committed to rival project? Ask what you can do to help them perform a better public affairs job for their station and their community. Many stations may not refuse flat out, but there may be other reasons that they are unable to commit. If they currently have too many PSAs running, ask if you can wait in line until they rotate some of the existing PSAs off their schedule. If you are having problems setting up a meeting, you may want to send a letter outlining your ideas.

    Try bartering time. Piggyback on the giants. Sometimes, a major advertiser can use its strength to negotiate special rates or extra spots for the time it has reserved for the commercial ads. It can then convert those paid spots into, or barter them for, PSA. You may want to consider contacting advertisers in your area to see if they are willing to barter paid spots for PSAs in their local buys. If there are companies in your community that regularly advertise on TV and in newspapers, ask them if your organization’s PSAs can be included as a “barter” arrangement in their media placements. Be creative and open to ideas. A local grocery store may be willing to put your organization’s phone number on their bags or pass out information at checkout counters. Restaurants may put your information on tray inserts. A utility company may include an insert in the bills they send their customers. The possibilities are endless.

    Remember to say thank you. Express your appreciation for the exposure that the station or paper has provided by sending a thank-you note. Continue to say in contact with public service managers, and keep monitoring PSA placements.

    Don't overlook advertising on billboards ad transit systems. Local outdoor advertisers often provide free billboard space if you pay for the artwork and installation. The same is true for transit ads. For additional information, contact your public transportation system’s public affairs office or the community affairs officers of the local outdoor advertising company listed on the billboard. When placing the ads, follow the same steps as outlined above.

    Advertising Mentors

    If your organization decides to develop an advertising campaign, look for a leading professional in your community to help guide the process on a volunteer basis. Invite a local advertising “guru” to sit on your board of directors, especially if you can find someone with a direct connection to your organization’s mission. A community college may offer a quick course on advertising techniques. Many cities have advertising clubs that promote the use of advertising to businesses. Check out the American Association of Advertising Agencies at which may help you connect with local resources.


    Reprinted with permission from the Jossey-Bass Guide to Strategic Communications for Nonprofits