Written by Douglas Quenqua
Published on June 14, 2004, Edited for length and content
When writing a public service announcement,
you need balance between information and emotion. Douglas
Quenqua reports on how to find the language that works.
PSAs are a unique form of outreach.
They're part commercial, part VNR, with just a touch
of soap opera. As such, it's important to write a script
that hits all the right notes. Knowing what notes to
strive for - and which to avoid - is vital if you want
to move your audience to action (and get your message
on the air in the first place).
The primary thing separating a PSA
from all other forms of outreach is the content. The
goal is not solely to inform, as it is with a VNR, and
it's not to sell a service or item, as it is with a
commercial. Almost without exception, the goal of a
PSA is to raise awareness for a problem or issue, then
encourage your audience to take some form of action.
In order to make that happen, your
PSA has to have the right tone. Obviously, this will
differ depending on the issue you're addressing, but
some things are universal. For example, it's important
not to try to "sell" too hard; severe healthcare
problems and social issues shouldn't be handled crudely.
Also, be sure not to hit a "newsy" or strictly
informative tone as you would with a press release or
"A PSA should not sound like a
news brief," warns Tammy Lemley, VP at North American
Networks. "When you do an ANR, you generally have
some sort of breaking news, sort of a 'this just in'
feel. With a PSA, you're trying to get people to pay
attention to something serious and change their behavior.
You're not begging, but you want to make a warm, friendly
appeal. Sometimes you want to tug at their heartstrings
There are a number of ways to achieve
such a tone. One is to use "feeling" words,
such as "heart," "health," or "caring."
Beyond the text, poignant music is a surefire way to
evoke emotion from the audience.
"We did an award-winning PSA for
the Consumer Product Safety Commission with [folk singer]
Tom Paxton singing an original song he wrote about SIDS,
about putting a baby to sleep on his or her back,"
recalls Lemley. "It was very effective."
The tools at your disposal for tugging
at those heartstrings will naturally differ depending
on your medium. Television PSAs are necessarily differently
scripted than radio PSAs. In the former, you can rely
on visuals to communicate your message and tailor your
to that. In radio, you need to rely more on solely your
words to communicate your meaning.
And while it's always important to
stress your call to action at the end of the PSA - that
last bit of information that tells the viewer/listener
what website to visit to learn more or what phone number
to call to order literature - it's doubly important
to do so with radio. Repetition is vital in both media,
but in radio, the listener obviously can't see the number
or website, so be sure to include several mentions of
Regardless of which media you're writing
for, keeping your PSA to a standard length is vital.
Most stations run 30-second spots, but 15-second and
60-second ones are also possible. If you have the budget,
it's not a bad idea to make three versions of the PSA,
a 15-, 30-, and 60-second spot. If you don't have the
budget for that, it's best to stick to 15.
And it's always a good idea when dealing
with radio stations to include a script for the DJ to
read in case the station would rather not run a PSA.
In fact, if you're looking to reach a certain demographic,
DJ scripts are significantly more effective than a standard
Your target audience may also require
you to produce a PSA in multiple languages. The cardinal
rule in such cases is not to simply translate your English
script into a different tongue. If you do so, certain
colloquialisms are likely not to translate well. You
could end up insulting or confusing the people you're
trying to reach. It's a good idea (though many professionals
admit this isn't done as often as it should be), to
get a native speaker and have him or her write your
script. It's the only way to be sure you're saying what
you think you're saying.
Indeed, it's a rule most say is ironclad
when it comes to writing PSA scripts: Get a professional
to do it.
- Do use an economy of emotional words.
You have 30 seconds to make an emotional connection
- Do include an easy-to-remember call
- Do include a DJ script, particularly
if you're trying to reach 18- to 25-year-old males
- Don't simply translate an English
script. Get a native speaker to write one from scratch
- Don't use the same script for television
- Don't do it yourself. Use a professional