March 31, 2010

Successful Public Service Announcements: What Every Nonprofit Needs to Know

4 min

Public service announcements (“PSAs”) are a popular and powerful tool in raising awareness about causes and initiatives related to the work of nonprofit organizations, trade associations, government agencies, and other entities. There are, however, specific laws and regulations that apply to producing or sponsoring PSAs. There are also some best practices that will provide the most impact for your organization’s PSAs.

PSAs raise public awareness about specific issues and the work of nonprofit, governmental and other organizations. Such announcements must reflect the true nature of any organization identified in the announcement and all claims must be substantiated.

PSAs are, in general, not paid advertisements. In most cases, the airtime for a PSA is not paid for by the organization providing the PSA but donated by a broadcaster as part of the broadcaster’s obligation to serve the public interest. Broadcasters are not required to air PSAs and may air them at hours when viewership is low. An organization is subject to the discretion of the broadcaster in terms of if, and when, its PSA will be aired.

To be eligible as a PSA for donated broadcast airtime, a PSA should be informational and educational only and if a specific product or service is mentioned, the price and location or method of purchase should not be disclosed. If a potential PSA focuses too heavily on the activities of an organization, even a nonprofit, then it may not receive donated airtime because the broadcaster will consider it to be an advertisement for the organization rather than a PSA. However, the name of the organization sponsoring or paying for production of a PSA can be used in the PSA.

Sponsorship Identification Rules
In general, the Federal Communication Commission’s (“FCC”) sponsorship identification rules do not apply to PSAs because PSAs are not paid to be broadcast. The sponsorship identification rules dictate that if any money, service or other valuable consideration is paid to broadcast programming material, the material must disclose by whom, or on whose behalf, the material was paid for or sponsored. This includes PSA-type content for which airtime is paid. If multiple sponsors pay to broadcast the material, each sponsor should be identified. If no money, service or other consideration is provided for airing the PSA, or only a nominal charge is incurred, no sponsorship identification is required. However, the identification of an organization producing or supporting a PSA is not prohibited.

Use of Political Candidates
Organizations producing PSAs should avoid the use of candidates campaigning for public office (whether currently in office or challengers) which can implicate the FCC’s Equal Time Rule. If broadcast time is given to one candidate, broadcasters must provide an equal opportunity to any opposing political candidate who requests it, with only limited exceptions. Given that broadcasters have great discretion in whether, and when, to air PSAs because they are not paid to air them, use of a political candidate would likely discourage a broadcaster from airing a PSA to avoid triggering the broadcaster’s requirements under the Equal Time Rule. The Equal Time Rule considerations only apply to the use of candidates in PSAs and not to other appointed, government or civil service officials. State laws may also have specific provisions related to the use of candidates or elected officials in PSAs, advertisements and other broadcast material.

Public Broadcast Stations
PSAs that air on public broadcast stations intersect with the specific requirements that govern the operation of these stations. Public broadcast stations must use their entire digital capacity primarily for nonprofit, noncommercial, educational broadcast service. Public broadcast stations are prohibited from airing commercial advertising in their broadcast programming, as opposed to ancillary and supplemental services such as subscription services. Therefore, public broadcast stations may restrict PSAs to those from certain types of bona fide nonprofit organizations. Public broadcast stations also may reject PSAs that solicit funds. PSAs to air on public broadcast stations must be true PSAs – informational, educational and not advertising a product or service.

PSAs can be a valuable tool for nonprofit organizations. Should you have additional questions about the rules governing PSAs, please feel free to contact Ronald Jacobs (