When I talk to non-profit organizations about publicity, the response is often, “Well we have a PSA”. A PSA is a Public Service Announcement and it is not equivalent to publicity. Publicity is part of an overall marketing or public awareness campaign. But all parts are not equal.
PSAs are like advertising, but they are distributed to media outlets to be broadcast or printed free. The degree of exposure they get depends on the media outlets, your geographic region and your cause. However, it is a fairly common practice to slot them in spots where the advertising space or time could not be sold. They become a “filler”. Often, this means they don’t get good time slots on television or good placement in publications.
On the other hand, some PSA campaigns are very successful. But, even the most successful are not equivalent to publicity. The key difference is the same as the difference between advertising and publicity. Whether you pay for the space or time, or get it for free, it is still an advertisement.
Objectivity is the big difference between advertising and publicity. Advertising is YOUR message. The message in an article or a television feature is created by a third party, from his or her viewpoint. Therefore, it is more believable to consumers. What do you believe more when you read a magazine — the articles or the advertisements? A good piece of journalism is balanced, meaning it shows at least two viewpoints on the issue. An advertisement shows only that of the organization that created it.
Publicity can also be as cost-effective or more so. While the time or space in which your PSA appears is donated, PSAs can be expensive to make. Graphic artists and video producers are not cheap. Training your staff and volunteers to work with the media is a one-time cost. However, it can create an on-going stream of new and varied publicity.
PSAs can be a very useful tool. But they do not replace publicity.