Making public service announcements work for your nonprofit

Getting your PSA on the radio or on TV can give your nonprofit a big boost.

Getting your PSA on the radio or on TV can give your nonprofit a big boost.

Nonprofits and small businesses that are supporting them can often use what’s known as a public service announcement (or PSA), if their service is in the community interest. Maybe your nonprofit deals with issues of importance to the community, like a program that provides corporate clothes to unemployed people for job interviews, or farm-fresh foods to low income families or literacy programs for recent immigrants, or food and shelter for the homeless. Maybe your business supports a nonprofit agency that does great work, but doesn’t have the means to let the public know what it provides. In all these cases, PSAs can help.

Here’s how it works. A radio or television station (or newspaper) has unsold advertising inventory. Instead of letting it go unused, they run public service announcements to fill up the space.

The tradition goes back a long way, according to Bill Goodwill’s Public Service Advertising: Background and Future.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines a PSA as “any announcement for which no charge is made and which promotes programs, activities, or services of federal, state, or local governments (e.g., recruiting, sale of bonds, etc.) or the programs, activities or services of nonprofit organizations (e.g., United Way, Red Cross blood donations, etc.) and other announcements regarded as serving community interests, excluding time signals, routine weather announcements and promotional announcements.”

The most common topics for PSAs are those involving health and safety. Usually a PSA is part of a general awareness campaign, and the good ones are professionally produced, whether it’s for print, radio or television. You’ve probably seen PSAs telling people to not smoke, to not text while driving, to adopt animals from shelters, etc. Generally, they are value-neutral (with no pricing information or “calls to action”), but they often include a phone number or website where one can get additional information. Sometimes, they feature celebrities. Sometimes, they create them, like Smokey the Bear, or the Crash Test Dummies.

The Huffington Post collected some of the best video PSAs that you can view here.

Here’s a great example of a PSA about domestic violence and sexual abuse, which was scheduled to run as a commercial during the Super Bowl.

Getting started

So, you’re a nonprofit with a service you think it worthy of a public service announcement.

-Start with the newspapers, radio and/or TV stations in your market. Ask the program director or ad sales director what the station’s PSA policy is, and how they want public service announcements formatted, i.e. 15 second, 30 second; and how they want them delivered.

-Have your public service announcement created professionally in a value-neutral tone (i.e. no pricing, calls to action). This is not an ad.

-Deliver the PSAs to the station with information on your organization and its nonprofit status.

-There’s a big demand for PSA time, and there may not be inventory, so your PSA may run at 3AM, if it runs at all.

A for-profit business also can use PSAs to gain recognition of their support for a nonprofit. Here’s how:

-If your business is a location for a nonprofit activity or event. If the Red Cross is holding a blood drive in your company’s parking lot, that’s a possibility. If your business is a drop-off site for non-perishable food for a local food pantry, that’s another possibility.

-If your business is a creative firm that creates the PSA, sometimes your work can get credit in a PSA. An example: This announcement produced as a contribution to the March of Dimes by ABC Graphics.

Some other things to consider:

The competition for PSA time is enormous. If ad sales are good, that leaves less time available for public service.

Pitch the stations that serve your marketplace. You may think your service is “regional” or “statewide,” but stations look at the physical location of the business when they decide what community programs to support.

If a station is locally owned, it may be easier to secure PSA time. A station that’s part of a network or owned by someone out of town may have their PSA policy dictated to them by someone outside the station.

Some stations offer off-air public service initiatives. I used to work for a public radio station that, as a community service to its classical music market, offered on-air calendar listings. They’ve now set-up a big web community calendar, and they provide the service free to nonprofits.


Mark G. Auerbach is principal at Mark G. Auerbach Public Relations, a Springfield, MA, based marketing, public relations, development and events consultancy. You can find more information about Mark at Facebook and LinkedIn.


Leave a Reply

The Self-Employment Survival Guide can help you succeed. Learn all about it here.

Self-Employment Survival Guide book cover