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Is your online PR and marketing ready for the new ASA regulations?by
25th Feb 2011
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The Advertising Standards Agency’s (ASA) remit will be extended from 1 March in a move that has implications for every UK business with a website or that uses social media as a means of promotion.
The changes are intended to plug the regulatory grey area between a company’s efforts to proactively promote its products or services via editorial and paid-for advertising.
The implication for marketing communications and PR practitioners are significant especially given that what have previously been distinct marketing disciplines, namely advertising, PR, search and social media, are blurring online.
Role of the ASA
The ASA is the UK’s independent regulator of advertising across all forms of media from TV-to-the-internet and from sales promotion to marketing. It is funded by a small levy on advertising space and airtime as well as a contribution from the Royal Mail's contract to deliver direct mail.
The ASA’s role is to ensure that ads under its remit are “legal, decent and honest”, in line with its Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP). It exists to protect the interests of the consumer.
The ASA already regulates advertising online including paid-for ads, search listings and sales promotion, so what’s new? The new change announced in August 2010 is an extension of the CAP Code to cover online marketing communications.
Regulation of social media
The ASA’s new remit is broad. It covers marketing communication on a company’s own website and in other non-paid-for space as blogs, communities or social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
Public relations and social media professionals have been critical during the six-month consultation process leading up to the extension of the CAP Code of what they believe to be the advertising industry regulator attempting to extend its reach beyond advertising into other disciplines.
Only time will tell if such claims have any basis as the ASA’s new role beds down and it begins to adjudicate on consumer complaints. It’s likely to be busy. Last year it reported 2,500 complaints, equivalent to two-thirds of all complaints, about online marketing.
Remit of the extension to the CAP Code
The ASA has taken steps to define the extension to the CAP code during the six-month consultation period since its new remit was announced and by working with organisations such as the CIPR and PRCA.
In the broadest possible terms marketing communications activities now fall within the CAP Code and online public relations activities are excluded.
- Websites. For example, all copy and messages on your web site or in social media channels where a business is promoted must be "legal, decent and honest". All claims must be qualified and any statistical data must be properly referenced.
- Press releases. Press releases however are excluded from the CAP Code. The distinction lies in the labelling of the document and the fact that it is intended primarily for bloggers and journalists, and not consumers.
- Search engine optimisation. Natural search results that turn up via a Bing or Google search are excluded from the CAP Code however paid for advertisements are a form of advertising and fall within the remit of the code.
- Social media conversations. Here’s where it gets tricky; user generated content falls within the new remit only if it is adopted and used proactively within an organisation’s own marketing communications, on its own website or in other non-paid for space online under the organisation’s control. Comments about a brand on a company’s Facebook page by consumers as part of a natural conversation don’t fall under a code, but if, for example, a company used those quotes to promote its business on its home page then they would fall under the ASA’s scrutiny.
- Video. Promotional videos such as adverts or content aimed at selling a product or search are covered by the code but editorial video content intended to communicate an opinion are not.
See the CAP Code for further information about what activities fall within the new regulation.
The ASA relies heavily on self-regulation and the awareness of marketing practitioners to avoid breaches. But the CAP Code does include sanctions for businesses that breach the code.
The ASA can ask for marketing communication materials that breach the code to be withdrawn or amended. Other sanctions include a name and shame policy on the ASA website, removal of paid-for search advertising and ASA paid-for search advertisements to spotlight an advertiser’s continued non-compliance.
Serious breaches of compliance may be referred to the Office of Fair Trading under the 2008 Consumer Protection legislation.
Call to action
If you are responsible for promoting a business online you need to be aware of the new regulations and how they affect your role. Compliance should be straightforward and any confusion that currently exists in the remit of the new regulations is likely to be quickly cleared up.
The CIPR’s Social Media panel has worked with the ASA to produce a briefing paper for PR practitioners on the extension to the CAP Code. It describes the remit of the regulation from a PR perspective and marketing communication activities that are both included and excluded from the regulation.
The ASA is urging agencies and website owners to sign up to CAP Services to find out more and gain access to guidance and training that will help them comply with the new rules.