April 10, 2019

Should your organization produce a PSA?

Stephanie Paul, Vice President of Marketing and Development at the American Parkinson Disease Association, sits down with Sarah Durham to discuss her experiences creating PSAs and shares lessons learned along the way. Tune in to learn how APDA uses their PSAs as tools to raise awareness, reach new audiences, gather stories, and change perceptions about Parkinson’s disease.


Sarah Durham: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. I’m Sarah Durham. I’m the CEO of Big Duck, and I am joined today by Stephanie Paul, who’s the Vice President of Marketing and Development at the American Parkinson Disease Association. Welcome, Stephanie.

Stephanie Paul: Thank you, Sarah. It’s great to be here.

Sarah Durham: Delighted to have you. We’re talking about something that, honestly, I don’t know as much about as I would like, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to pick your brain about it, which is PSAs, public service announcements.

And, I have to say that in my 25 or 26 years of working with nonprofits I can probably count on one hand the number of organizations, at least on our client list, who’ve done PSAs that we’ve been involved in.

You guys have had some great successes with it, so let’s start by hearing a little bit about your journey. Why did you start doing PSAs?

Stephanie Paul: That’s a great question. I started with APDA in the summer of 2013, and in January of 2014, I received a phone call from someone who was living with Parkinson’s disease who is an actor, and he had a good friend who was a producer and a director, and he said, “I’d like to do a public service awareness campaign. Would you be interested? We have an idea. Would you be interested?” And, I said, “Sure, why not?”

Sarah Durham: It bubbled up from the grassroots.

Stephanie Paul: Absolutely. They came to me with a very modest budget, and I thought, “Okay, I think we can put the money together to do this. I think this is a worthwhile activity,” and we were very fortunate because these folks really were at the top level. Their ability to produce material that was top notch was really critical. So, we a little bit learned as we went along. We wrote the script ourselves. We brought in people with Parkinson’s disease. We felt it was really important to have authenticity in what we were doing, so we did a casting call in California and had wonderful people who came forward to tell their story. We shot the PSA out in California over, I think, two days, edited it, put the whole thing together, and then said, “Huh, now what do we do? I guess we have to distribute it.”

Sarah Durham: Gotta get it out there. This is the “If we build it, they will come,” dilemma.

Stephanie Paul: So, that was a whole new piece, and we did a request for proposal for distribution companies that specialize in PSAs.

Sarah Durham: And, this is an interesting thing that I think a lot of people don’t know is that that is a thing. That people do have distribution businesses around this.

Stephanie Paul: Yeah. And so, we did the RFP. We hired a company to do this for us, to do the marketing for us. Then, we thought, “Oh, gosh, I bet a lot of people will call us.” We already had an 800 number, but it was really coming to our national office, and so then we said, “Maybe we need to go hire a call center that could really handle a different volume.” We did that.

So, we sort of put all these pieces together and then we actually launched the PSA in September of that year. So, it was a full seven or eight months from the time we shot until we actually launched the PSA. And, when I say launched, that is the distribution company marketing both television and radio.

Sarah Durham: I’m not gonna ask you to share what you spent on all of this, but I do wanna sort of flag that this is one of the real challenges we see when things bubble up is that there’s the benefit of a volunteer or somebody who’s willing to do something pro bono, but there are real production costs.

In your case, you’ve talked about a number of things like the call center that require not only expenses, but your time to set up and script and train. In my experience, when we’ve been involved in PSAs, the actual film/video team and that process can typically cost somewhere between about $20,000 and $40,000 for an organization that’s not getting a lot of it donated. So, probably, if you were going to do this without a lot of contributed resources, you’re looking at an expense of maybe $50,000 to $100,000, in my experience. Do you think that’s true?

Stephanie Paul: Yeah, I think that’s true. From soup to nuts, the production, the distribution, all of the elements would probably run you somewhere between $50,000 to $100,000, yeah.

Sarah Durham: But, the distribution firm that you hired is actually helping you get airtime pro bono, right?

Stephanie Paul: Right. And, with a PSA, that’s what happens. It has to be pro bono. We do not pay for any placement whether it’s print or television or radio. Another point to the things we had to create: we now had this video asset, and then we thought, “Oh, gosh, now we need a print asset,” so we had to create a print version of the PSA.

Sarah Durham: Like a brochure or follow-up item that people get when they call the 800 number?

Stephanie Paul: Well, no, to put into magazines.

Sarah Durham: Oh, a print ad, yeah.

Stephanie Paul: Because, we actually get—and, again, it’s all pro bono; we don’t pay for any of the space that we use—but, like a neurology magazine. They say, “Oh, let’s put your ad in,” so we had to create that.

There’s a lot of things that we hadn’t thought about, and we made them happen because it really was very important for us to be doing this and we knew we had such a good— we felt we had such a good product that we needed to get that on the air.

Sarah Durham: And, you actually had a lot of people who saw it and a lot of calls, and you actually just launched what I think of as the 2.0 version, right, a new PSA. So, tell us some of the things you learned because I know you baked a lot of those lessons into the new campaign you just launched.

Stephanie Paul: Yeah, so, we had to do a new PSA because we had a new brand that we launched—thanks to Big Duck for your incredible help in launching this new brand. And we had to have the same look and feel.

Our old PSA was fine. It didn’t look right. The messaging wasn’t correct, so we had to redo it. Now that we had learned everything from the first PSA, we knew how to do the second one and we knew all of the elements that we were going to have to bring to the table, so it made it a lot easier to actually execute. And so we went with that same mindset of making sure we had authenticity; we had people who were really living with Parkinson’s Disease.

One of the things that we did differently this time: we originally did a 60-, 30-, and 15-second spot in English. And about a year into the original PSA, we realized, “We probably need a Spanish version,” so we translated, which was fine, but it wasn’t authentic. So, when we did the second PSA, we took the same concept, the same theme of the PSA, but we wrote it in Spanish. We had Spanish-people people with Parkinson’s disease executing the PSA so it truly was authentic. And that was really, really important to us to make sure that we were able to reach an audience that we desperately needed to reach with this PSA.

Sarah Durham: And you generated, in this new round, a lot of video assets, too, in the productions. Tell us a little bit about the other benefits of producing this PSA and where these things live. Where would I see them besides on-air?

Stephanie Paul: Sure. So, as we were shooting the PSA: we shot for two days in New York and we were very blessed to have space given to us. The Altman Building was the host of our shoot, which was really special. We wanted to make sure we utilized the folks to the best ability we possibly could. So they came in, they did their actual video shoot. They then did a still shoot, so we had a lot of still assets.

Sarah Durham: And, then you can use those in your print.

Stephanie Paul: Absolutely. And then, we did an interview session. We got a lot of B-roll and then we did an interview with every single one of the folks in the PSA, and, with that, were able to create a one to three minute behind-the-scenes video for each of the people in the PSA.

So, people can go to our website, and see the Look Closer PSA. It’s on the homepage. And then, they can click through to a microsite that shows all of the behind-the-scenes videos of all the folks who are in the PSA, and we also have a place where people could tell their own story. They answer a few questions and upload some photographs, and they get their own little video of their story. So it’s really a way for us to collect people’s stories and understand what people are going through. Whether they’re living with Parkinson’s disease or they’re someone who’s a care partner or a medical professional, it’s really important that we gather their stories.

And, I think that the most important thing for this particular PSA—aside from illustrating our new brand—was we really wanted to change perceptions about Parkinson’s disease, that it’s not necessarily your grandmother or your grandfather’s disease. We have people in the PSA who are diagnosed at age 34, so we really wanted to share those stories and let people know that you can still live a really full life and have a good life in spite of Parkinson’s disease, so that’s the message we wanna get across.

Sarah Durham: So, you touched on this earlier, the importance of having a clear call-to-action and making sure there was an 800 number and that you were appropriately staffed through a call center to manage that. As you think about producing a PSA, there are a lot of reasons why you might do it. You’re talking about one now, which is changing perceptions of the face of Parkinson’s disease, but there are other reasons you might produce a PSA, for instance, helping people who are affected by Parkinson’s to connect with you and know that you’re a resource in different ways.

We worked on a campaign for Duchenne muscular dystrophy a while ago where we were trying to help people who might know a child with Duchenne but the child had been undiagnosed actually understand what Duchenne was and begin to recognize it because once you’ve seen it, you can start to recognize it. The intent in the PSA was to almost help people self-diagnose or recommend a diagnostic process. So, other than changing perceptions about the face of Parkinson’s disease, were there other things that you were hoping the PSA would achieve, or things you found it actually unexpectedly has achieved?

Stephanie Paul: Well, with this new one, it’s a little hard to tell because it’s only been out for one month. The real objective is to raise awareness about the disease itself, that it’s out there. You may not know somebody today, but you probably will soon at some point in the future.

And then, the second key is that the American Parkinson Disease Association is here to help you. We are here as a resource. Whether it’s education, information, support, we’re here and we want you to give us a call. We want you to know we’re here to help you. We have chapters all throughout the country. We have resources all throughout the country and we want to make sure that people are knowing that there’s somebody to go to. Because, a lot of times, what happens is someone is diagnosed with Parkinson’s regardless of their age, and they say, “I’m the only person,” and they sort of closet themselves off, and they can’t do that.

Sarah Durham: And, it’s often the case also we see with a lot of health-specific organizations that the first relationship and the deepest relationship that a newly diagnosed patient develops is actually with their clinician. It’s with the doctor or hospital that’s treating them, and it can sometimes take people years before they actually discover that there are organizations out there that provide a wealth of supportive services and resources beyond those they’re getting from their clinician or the hospital or something like that.

Stephanie Paul: Yeah, and a lot of people may only be going to their general practitioner. They’re not seeing a neurologist, and we want people to get to a neurologist or a movement disorder specialist, and so it’s really helping people understand that that’s something that they need to do, and we hope that that’s something that’s going to raise the awareness. I think when people look at the PSA, they will be surprised because they see young people moving and doing things, and they’ll say, “That person has Parkinson’s disease?”

Actually, as we were shooting, we had a young woman who was 37 years old at her diagnosis. She was on American Ninja Warrior. You do not want to mess with this young lady.

Sarah Durham: She sounds tough.

Stephanie Paul: Yeah, and she was being filmed for her portion, and one of the other people who was going to be in the PSA walked in with his wife, and his wife said, “Oh, is that a stand-in? Is that someone who’s just …” and I said, “No, that’s somebody who’s living with Parkinson’s disease,” and she couldn’t believe it.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, that’s amazing. So, I’m curious about tracking and how you measure who’s watching and how you convert those calls to the call center or calls to your organization or web traffic into other actions.

Stephanie Paul: One of the challenges with something like this: this PSA has been distributed through television across the country. It’s Nielsen-tracked, so we know when it runs if, in fact, it’s a spot that is Nielsen-tracked. So, for example, if it’s on cable, we may not be able to know that it was actually running. So, we can track that. We know how often it’s running. That’s important to us.

Other than asking people when they call or when they come into us, “How did you hear about this?” It’s very difficult, unfortunately, to track, did people come to us because they saw the PSA? I know that you have to see something I think it’s like seven times before it actually resonates with you and you remember it.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, that’s the rule of effective frequency, they call it.

Stephanie Paul: Yeah. I know that there are people who have, in fact, said, “I called you because I saw the PSA.” We had two people recently call us, Spanish speakers who saw the Spanish-speaking PSA and called us, which is a huge. It’s so gratifying when someone who otherwise would not have picked up the phone because there’s not a Spanish speaker at the other end of the phone to help them with their questions.

So, it is a bit challenging to really tie back and say, “Okay, this has increased revenue or increased traffic.” We know that our web traffic has increased, but I think it’s sort of a perfect storm of rebranding, working on SEO, a lot of different things that are pulling more people to our website. We know there are more people coming to our website. It’s a challenge to actually tie it back to something concrete.

Sarah Durham: You know, you’re talking about something I think so many communications professionals struggle with, and it goes to this bigger theme or objective that communicators have which is building top-of-mind awareness.

So, it might be that I saw the PSA, but I saw it months ago and I don’t really remember that I saw it. Or, maybe I heard somebody speak at a conference, or maybe I read something or I saw the print ad. But by the time I actually visit the website, take some sort of action, I don’t really remember. So building mindshare, maintaining mindshare is something that I think all communications teams wanna do, but it takes that kind of constant unrelenting visibility that most teams don’t actually have the stamina for or the budget for. It’s really a challenge.

Stephanie Paul: Yeah, and one of the things that we’re doing to complement what’s being aired on television, obviously, is using social media. April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month. We were pushing out something every day about the PSA. So we got a tremendous number of hits, which is wonderful. But, for us, this is not just a one-month’s deal. This is always, and so we have to sort of keep that going and think of new ways to make sure people are seeing the PSA and basically understanding that we’re here to help. I mean, that’s the objective, ultimately, is to pick up the phone or go visit one of our chapters if you need any support if you’re impacted by Parkinson’s disease.

Sarah Durham: So, this is an evergreen campaign. It’s gonna live on.

So, one last question: if somebody out there is debating whether or not to pursue producing a PSA and kind of building, what you’re describing is, I think of it as sort of a machine, right? It’s got a lot of parts you had to build and a lot of parts you now have to maintain now that it’s out there. So, if a nonprofit communications person or executive director is thinking about building a PSA machine, what advice would you give them going into it?

Stephanie Paul: Well, I think, again, “What is your purpose? Is it a specific campaign or is it something that’s evergreen? Is there some message that you wanna give about your organization that you wanna constantly have out there?” and so really defining that piece.

And then, I think the quality has to be superior because the reason that the stations will play what we’re offering is because it is good quality. You need to have multiple lengths. We have a 30-, a 60-, and actually, with this particular spot, a 20-second PSA because the material was very hard to cut it and have it have meaning, so you have to really think through that. But, having a variety of choices for the stations is really important. That means they’ll play it because they have a lot of choice.

Sarah Durham: And you also have a small team, but nonetheless, there is communications staff on your team. You’ve got people who have the capacity to keep this plane flying now that the PSA is out there, and you’re a small team, so it’s not a deep bench. But, you’re doing maintenance while this thing is going on. You’re keeping an eye on it and tracking it, and that’s another variable that people should think about before they produce a PSA, not just, “Do I have the budget and the time to produce something that’s going to be quality?” but, “Will I have the capacity on an ongoing basis to track it and keep an eye on it and make sure we’re using it?”

Stephanie Paul: Yeah, absolutely. One of the really important pieces about working with this distribution company is understanding that it’s not for three months. We continuously have to track, so we’re continuously engaging the company that’s doing the distribution or did the distribution to track, so that’s an ongoing expense.

I think one of the reasons we have success are the partners that have worked with us to produce the work that we’ve done, working with our web development company, the creative team. We’re very fortunate. We work with a company in Connecticut called Team Digital and the CEO of the company is someone living with Parkinson’s disease, and much of the work that they did for us was pro bono or at a dramatically decreased rate, which was very important for us. We were very fortunate to have that.

But, having partners who can really kind of help us and hold up the work that we need to do is critical because we do have a very small team. We have a social media staff person. I have another staff person who works with me on the communications side who sort of helps write and make sure that we’ve got everything moving along and we’re staying on-brand and on-message and all that. But that’s really critical to have sort of those team players that are working with you to keep the whole thing alive and moving.

Sarah Durham: Great, great. Well, Stephanie Paul, thank you for joining me today. Appreciate it.

Stephanie Paul: Thank you, Sarah.