Is the ASA’s new online remit a missed opportunity?

As has been widely reported, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), has extended its remit to include online marketing communications.

While an argument can be made for a need to extend the ASA’s remit to cover websites as well as online ads I’m not entirely convinced that the attempt to pin down marketing communications is the best approach to regulating social media.

The ASA's media release tells us that their new remit will cover:

  • Advertisers' own marketing communications on their own websites and;
  • Marketing communications in other non-paid-for space under
    their control, such as social networking sites like Facebook and

Journalistic and editorial content and material related to causes
and ideas – except those that are direct solicitations of donations for
fund-raising – are excluded from the remit.

There are two things that need clarifying here:

  1. what exactly is marketing communications
  2. how does it differ from editorial?

Ask any PR professional how marketing communications differs from editorial and the they'll tell you that the two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive.

Possibly, the ASA has taken marketing communications as overt communications marketing products, services or brands, e.g. "Buy this cream and it'll make you thin!" but then that risks taking a very narrow definition of marketing communications.

Further evidence for this comes to life in the IAB's FAQs on the ASA's new remit. They state that the guidelines won't cover "press releases or other PR material" – a notion that at best shows some vagueness about what PR is and does, and at worst reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the industry.

Even if the ASA has somewhere unpicked the finer points of PR then how can marketing communications (regulated) be adequately differentiated from 'editorial' (not regulated)?

Add to this the convergence of media in online social spaces and there's even more complexity.

For example, what happens when the public starts engaging with brands and discussing products or services on brand owned spaces? And then when brands respond with neither editorial or marketing communications – e.g. general conversation on Twitter – and what about passionate members of the public that are brand advocates and start evangelising about a brand or product – is that marketing communications?

The ASA's new remit, it could be argued, is a missed opportunity to truly understand and attempt to strengthen regulation of marketing activity in the online space – a worthy initiative given they claim websites were the second most complained about marketing channel last year.

Brand Republic says that the new guidelines are a "fudge". But it's a fudge that could have potentially been avoided – or at least – addressed directly.

Back in May, the Chartered Institute of Public RelationsSocial Media Advisory Panel [Disc. I'm a member] approached the IAB which is represented on the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) to request that the PR industry be involved in development of the new code.

Given the centrality of ‘editorial’ and ‘marketing communications' in the new regulations we felt it was appropriate, if not essential, to input and have the vice of the PR industry.

While we were given the undertaking that the views of the PR industry would be heard it seems that this wasn’t to be the case. Of course, we could have gone direct to the ASA but a dialogue had already been opened.

The CIPR has issued a statement which articulates some of its major concerns, which I've pasted below.

But to me it seems that the ASA has missed an opportunity to think coherently about social media and implement an effective regulatory approach to the online space, not to mention a potentially naïve assumption by the ASA as to the role of PR, marketing communications and editorial in contemporary society.

Here's the CIPR's statement in full:

Chartered Institute for Public Relations (CIPR) policy statement on the proposed regulation of social networks/media by the ASA

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) recognises the importance of protecting the online public from unscrupulous businesses and organisations, however the Chartered body representing the PR profession has concerns regarding the planned extension of the remits of the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to cover online communications.

The advertising industry is concerned with advertising messaging that is one-way.  Social networks involve dialogue and frequently ‘editorial’ content.   

We believe that the ASA's remit does not extend to moderating the freedom of speech so closely associated with social media such as Twitter, Facebook and websites   Any definition of advertising should be scoped so as to avoid censoring the ability of citizens and consumers to enjoy the free on-line dialogue they have come to expect.

The CIPR also has reservations about changes to the CAP Code and the way the ASA's new and extended remit has been planned. Any changes to the UK's current regulatory frameworks affecting how the public relations profession conducts its business should be developed through close consultation with the chartered body of the public relations profession. Given the significance these proposed changes will have for public relations, marketing and social media professionals, the CIPR believes that the ASA should be working together with the CIPR to develop fair and workable regulations that work with and supports broader, existing frameworks such as the CIPR Code of Conduct and social media guidelines.

The CIPR approached the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) which is represented on the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) in May of this year and were given the undertaking that the views of the PR industry would be heard.  "We are disappointed this action has been taken without our involvement.”