Public Service Announcements in a pandemic: Informing the public while supporting media business development

[Article also available in Burmese.] Public Service Announcements (PSAs) can fill the empty space left by advertisers in a time of crisis. They expose audiences to valuable messages relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic, and they help media survive during a time of financial peril. Since the start of the pandemic, MDIF and its media partners in Myanmar have disseminated messages with an estimated reach of 26 million people.

Children need more attention during a pandemic. COVID-19 increases their stress levels. The government’s stay-at-home policy has reduced their space and flexibility to play. As children are not yet able to express their anxiety, parents need to take extra care. That’s the message of a PSA published by MDIF’s Myanmar media partner, Dawei Watch, about the pandemic.

Most PSAs in Myanmar cover the basics about precautions to be taken related to COVID-19, such as the importance of mask wearing, frequent hand washing and physical distancing. These messages are very relevant. Yet the Dawei Watch PSA stands out because it tackles a rarely addressed issue. Also, by addressing the issue of children’s higher stress levels as a result of the pandemic and the need to respond to this issue, it demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the information needs of its audience.

In April 2020, MDIF invited 10 of its media partners in Myanmar to submit proposals to produce a series of PSAs about COVID-19 for dissemination on their media platforms. Three of the ten media are based in Yangon, but with nationwide coverage. The other seven are local media, operating in different regions and ethnic states. They utilize a variety of media platforms – digital, print and television – so the PSA formats also vary widely: cartoons, advertorials, banner advertisements on websites and social media, song creation, as well as video content broadcast on television or via digital platforms. Over three months they produced and disseminated more than 400 different PSAs through this public service campaign to educate and inform audiences about COVID-19.

Here are two examples of PSAs published through MDIF’s Myanmar Media Program (MMP) by Dawei Watch in Tanintharyi Region and Monywa Gazette in Sagaing Region. The Dawei Watch PSA addresses family psychological care guidelines during the pandemic. The Monywa Gazette PSA advises how you can stay safe if travelling during the pandemic.

Image: Dawei Watch
Image: Monywa Gazette

The three benefits of MDIF’s PSA COVID-19 initiative

First: It provides vital information about COVID-19 to Myanmar people across the country in different languages, including: what is the COVID-19 virus, how does it differ from influenza, and how to avoid it. In doing so, it has confirmed media’s public service role, and has reminded people of media’s role in providing clear and accurate information during an emergency, thereby helping the public better determine their own decisions and actions.

“It’s a real benefit for our audiences. And, as we’re sharing information in different Shan languages, people in rural areas can also now get COVID-19 information,” explained Cherry Htike, chief editor of Tachileik News Agency in Shan State.

The PSA program has reached an impressive number of people. About 11 million people accessed messages about COVID-19 from the online platforms of the 10 participating media in the first phase of the program. In addition, 15 million television viewers and 70,000 journal and newspaper readers were able to view or read messages. This means that altogether the PSAs have reached an estimated 26 million people across the country.

Second: This PSA initiative has provided an opportunity for participating media to generate revenue. When commercial advertisers abruptly cancelled their promotional plans due to the pandemic as early as March, media revenue from advertising dropped drastically. These PSAs filled the empty space. MDIF’s research into the impact of COVID-19 on media in Myanmar, published in July, found that 32 out of 36 respondents had experienced a decrease in advertising revenue, with half seeing their revenue drop by 75%. This kind of loss would represent an enormous financial management challenge for any media leader.

The PSA initiative has offered timely and helpful support by easing media partners’ cash flow management challenges. Many media have had to undergo cost-cutting, including layoffs and staff salary reductions. Through this initiative, MDIF has enabled funds to flow to 10 of its media partners at a critical time, helping them reduce cash flow pressures. “Our advertising revenue has increased after publishing our PSAs,” said Za Baik Thawng, Hakha Post’s Manager.

The way it worked was that, after the media partners developed their PSA ideas, they submitted proposals to MDIF’s small team of experts, comprised of two MMP coaches and MDIF’s Myanmar Senior Sales Advisor. The expert team provided feedback on the proposals, focusing on the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) the media would need to achieve, for example, the target audience for each PSA, and the means to achieve their targets. The next step was the most important: negotiation. Acting like regular advertisers, MDIF asked the media to offer discounts. In this way, its partners gained valuable experience for their future negotiations with advertisers. Once the negotiations were completed, the media signed contracts that set out the terms agreed. Then, in the same way they would do with a commercial advertiser, at the end of each month the media sent MDIF proof that the PSAs had been published: broadcast schedules, links to PSAs on online platforms, or copies of print publications. They also submitted an invoice which MDIF only paid if the agreed deliverables were achieved.

This focus on business and on-the-job training has made the PSA initiative an essential part of MDIF’s business capacity building program. Since the first phase, MDIF has expanded the initiative to include 17 additional media partners. And there is potential for further development. For example, MDIF is planning to expand the PSA business initiative beyond COVID-19 to address other public interest topics and messages relevant to its partners’ audience needs in different parts of the country. In so doing, it can ensure that valuable public service information continues to be disseminated, and that participating media can continue to generate income that helps them produce the news and information their audiences need, while at the same time receiving business training and advice in a real world context.

This initiative also has the potential to inspire other organisations. Instead of simply giving grants, donors could change the funding mechanism into a business opportunity for media. According to Brang Mai, the CEO of Myitkyina News Journal in Kachin State, “Before participating in this initiative, we never thought about producing creative public service announcements. So not only have we improved our content, we’ve increased our audience, survived a difficult crisis, and diversified our revenue sources.” A win-win situation: media partners generate the cash they need to help them continue to operate, while their audiences get the information they need to survive and prosper.

Considering that the economic crisis caused by COVID-19 looks set to continue for a long time to come, it is likely that it will also be a long time before commercial advertisements return in a significant way. PSAs are an alternative way to assist with both media’s survival and business development.

Tosca Santoso
Myanmar Media Program Business Coach

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