As station sales teams and their underwriting clients continue to navigate through the COVID-19 crisis, many sponsors are requesting changes to copy to reflect the times. In doing so, stations are struggling with maintaining the right balance between adhering to FCC guidelines (which have not been changed), and offering sponsors flexibility in messaging in the spirit of supporting the community and preserving business for the station.
After consulting with our own legal counsel, we offer the following copy considerations for the current landscape.
In general, it is perfectly appropriate to adjust copy to reflect how an underwriter may be responding to COVID-19 in your area. Indeed, as community broadcasters, our listeners would most likely expect our sponsors to use their connection to the station to inform listeners of changes in their own services or mission as the pandemic continues to unfold. This is not “business as usual” for any of us, and public media stations and their sponsors are working hard on behalf of the communities we serve. That said, stepping into new copy territory can be challenging, and it may be helpful to keep the following in mind:
- Risk assessment: Like any copy that breaks precedent, consider your market, your audience, your donors, and their potential reaction to hearing such a spot. In these times, you also need to consider public health risk based on the underwriter and message in question, i.e. is the business deemed “essential” or not, and what information does the business want to include? A grocery store listing special hours for seniors is okay, a non-essential business saying they are still open but taking steps to be safer in the store is likely not a good idea.
- Community resource: Make sure the copy cannot be perceived as an underwriter trying to exploit a bad situation. Take steps to ensure any claims are true, and that the spirit of the message is about the well-being of the community versus sneaking in a violation of the FCC’s underwriting restrictions in the guise of helping the community, i.e. “Cinder BBQ, offering phone-ahead and curb-side pick-up service” would likely be okay, whereas “Cinder BBQ, ensuring Anytown’s favorite BBQ is still available with curb-side pick-up service” would not.
- Bottom line: At the end of the day, any copy adjustments coming out of what can be described as a thoughtful, reasonable decision process by your station will most likely be defensible.
- Special guidelines: WNYC drafted special guidelines related to COVID-19 underwriting copy, which are really helpful and can easily be adopted for your station.
When it comes to specific types of messaging, we’ve had numerous questions about the following:
- Essential businesses and adjusted services: Businesses such as grocery stores, UPS stores, pharmacies (and others deemed essential in your community) wanting to include information about pick-up and delivery, special hours for seniors, and other changes in regular services in the interest of public health is okay (provided that it is worded in a way that adheres to existing FCC guidelines, i.e. no call to action, no qualitative, comparative language, etc. )
- Corporate commitment to the community: Before COVID-19, it was okay to allow language about a company’s commitment to the community in copy, as long as this aspirational type of language was not used to cover otherwise unacceptable copy. This is still true, and in doing so, stations should generally be okay using language like “uncertain times” or “unprecedented times” to offer context to the underwriter’s COVID-19-specific message.
- Resources for the audience: Some businesses want to list tools and services they have created or designed specifically in response to COVID-19 in their spots. For example, a bank might want to say they are offering “tools to navigate uncertainty.” This is generally fine provided that the description of the resources themselves is not qualitative, comparative, or unsubstantiated, and/or the use of or access to the resources themselves would not pose a threat to public health.
- How they are supporting the community via other non-profits: A for-profit underwriter wanting to mention a nonprofit in their message is acceptable, as long as the for-profit underwriter is identified as the sponsor. It is also fine from an FCC standpoint should that underwriter want to encourage listeners to donate to the nonprofit.
- Honoring employees who are essential workers: It is generally okay for businesses to mention their essential workers in this way, as long as they are not sneaking in any non-FCC compliant language about their products and services in doing so, i.e. “John’s Pizza, honoring our delivery staff and other essential workers” is likely okay, while “John’s Pizza, honoring our essential workers still delivering Anytown’s best pizza in under 30 minutes” is not.
- Support of the station: Just like in pre-COVID-19 times, it is generally okay for stations to reinforce the opportunity for clients to “lean in” with community messaging and connect to the station as a community resource. For example, “Joyce and Associates, supporting the community by helping WXYZ provide health and financial news during these unprecedented times” would most likely be okay.
- Station examples: See station samples of adjusted underwriting copy, accessible here.
On Friday, April 3, 2020, the FCC issued a waiver of the Sponsorship ID requirements through June 30, 2020 for instances where advertisers have asked to donate already-purchased time to air COVID-19 PSAs instead because the advertiser has either suspended ordinary business operations or finds that the planned advertising is no longer appropriate.
However, please keep in mind that at this time this waiver applies only to advertising, and not underwriting. And the FCC staff has informally confirmed that they do not believe that the waiver would extend to underwriting so public media stations should proceed as if this waiver does not apply to them. This does not mean stations engaging in “Buy One Get One” type of packages (examples accessible here) — where existing sponsors are donating or designating spots to nonprofits to use — cannot continue to do so. It just means that the sponsor donating the spot to the nonprofit should continue to be identified as the funder of the spot that mentions the nonprofit.
Greater Public will keep monitoring this space.
Update: On June 26, 2020, the FCC extended this waiver through August 31, stating:
“Given the absence of material changes in the circumstances underlying the initial grant of waiver of the sponsorship identification requirements, and consistent with other Commission actions related to the pandemic, we find that good cause exists to extend the previously granted waiver of our sponsorship identification requirements through August 31, 2020, in this unique situation.”
That said, the waiver continues to apply to advertising not underwriting, and therefore does not apply to public media stations. Thus, the advice above still holds true.
Note: The above represents Greater Public’s interpretation of FCC regulations. This should not be construed as legal advice and Greater Public may not be held responsible for use of this content.