Know Thy Gatekeeper

Free-Range Thinking | October 2002

If you want to see your next public service ad on TV, read it in print, or hear it on the radio, learn why this is commandment #1.

According to the National Association of Broadcasters, US television and radio stations donated $4.6 billion of advertising time for public service announcements last year. If you still have the feeling, though, that PSAs (perhaps including yours) run less frequently these days, you’re not alone. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation monitored broadcast and cable TV programming for six months in 2000 and found that less than one-half of one percent of air time was devoted to PSAs. Nearly half of these ads, not so incidentally, appeared between midnight and 6:00 am.

Kaiser’s discouraging numbers do not faze Jeff Boal. Five years at the Ad Council and eight more running the PlowShare Group (a full-service advertising agency) have taught Boal how to get PSAs on the air – and not just for an audience of insomniacs. When The Nature Conservancy hired PlowShare to solicit free media for a national branding campaign, TNC set a one-year goal of $15 million. PlowShare delivered $33 million. The key to such success, Boal says, is recognizing that companies don’t decide which PSAs will air and which won’t.People do. And once you understand how these gatekeepers think, you’re half way home.

The average television station, according to Boal, receives 3-5 PSA kits every day. Typically, they clutter the desk of an underpaid entry-level employee who is struggling to cover what used to be two or three different jobs. “These people are looking for reasons not to run your campaign,” Boal says, mostly to shrink the pile of ads they must choose among. Consequently, public interest advertisers must learn how to avoid the mistakes that let gatekeepers immediately toss out their ads and how to build in features that will help their ads stand out in a pack.

To accomplish both ends, Boal advises close attention be paid to five elements of the donated media campaign:

The Ad Itself
There are several “knockout factors” that let gatekeepers quickly eliminate your ad from further consideration:

  • If a local sponsor is mentioned (e.g., “Carl’s Chevrolet proudly supports The Trenton Tree-Huggers Society”), the sponsor’s competitors may call and complain about the free plug. Gatekeepers will predictably avoid any PSA that can stir up problems among advertisers.
  • If the subject matter is deemed too controversial (e.g., gun control), the gatekeeper may pass simply to keep the station out of a heated debate.
  • An excessively graphic handling of even tame subjects can also kill your PSA’s chances. Boal recalled one campaign on safety at railroad crossings that was so disturbing, few stations chose to air the ads.
  • When gatekeepers see a toll-free number, they want to know exactly what information awaits audience members who call. If it’s perceived as controversial or potentially embarrassing (particularly to advertisers) the gatekeeper may pass on the ad. Failing to provide this information provides an excuse to pass without any further consideration.
  • Radio stations are very protective of their sound. “If you’ve got a music bed in the spot,” Boal advises, “make it sound like the station you want it played on.”
  • Sending a television PSA in the wrong tape format asks the gatekeeper to spend time making a new dub. Take it from Boal: it’s not going to happen.

    According to a survey conducted by PlowShare, 82% of radio and television stations open every PSA package they receive, so you can safely assume gatekeepers will look at your kit. The important question is whether or not they will be excited by what they see. If the presentation of your ads isn’t as professional and compelling as the ads themselves, they may not even be screened.

    PlowShare frequently uses a production technique called “variable data printing” that makes the recipient’s company name appear to be part of the package’s design (see picture). This customized touch – one of many in a typical mailing – is eye-catching and, according to Boal, contributes to a higher percentage of use.

    For organizations whose name is not immediately recognizable, Boal recommends including documentation of your nonprofit status as part of your packaging. If the gatekeeper has any doubt over your worthiness as an applicant for donated media, this can become another excuse for a swift knockout.

    Contacting the gatekeeper before your package arrives can give it a competitive edge. “At a bare minimum, you can send a teaser card,” Boal says. “It creates a sense of relevance and connection, and that helps.” If you have more time, Boal recommends calling gatekeepers to explain why your campaign is relevant to their audience. “If you can say, for instance, ‘We served 35,000 people in Ohio last year alone, and we helped 2,800 around your station in Akron,’ that can make a critical difference.” To pre-sell The Nature Conservancy campaign, PlowShare called every local TV station in America – all 1,060 of them.

    Multiple Mailings
    When broadcast gatekeepers decide to air PSAs, Boal says, they usually slot them into a 90-day commercial rotation and then dump them, even if the ads have a longer shelf life. To keep campaigns on the air, Boal suggests sending multiple mailings evenly spaced throughout the life of the campaign. Each kit can earn its own 90-day cycle, extending your time on the air.

    Thank You Notes (and more)
    PlowShare tracks the use of its clients’ PSAs and sends thank you cards to every gatekeeper who runs them. “I don’t think these people get acknowledged enough,” says Boal, and he doesn’t stop at cards. “Once we sent a baby present to a new grandchild of one of our media contacts,” he recalls. “After all, you’re asking them to give you thousands and sometimes millions of dollars of free media. You should do for them what you’d do for a traditional donor.”


    “Most nonprofits don’t understand how competitive this really is,” says Boal. “Rather than thinking they have some kind of right to free time, their mind-set should be, What do I have to do to earn the time? Why is my issue more important for the available time than the organization down the street?” Never forget that there are two audiences in every donated media campaign. If your PSA kit doesn’t speak to the gatekeepers, you won’t have the chance to speak to the people you truly need to reach.