PR’s response to ASA new social media guidelines

Last month I blogged about ‘ASA gets it wrong on social media, fails to consult professional PR industry bodies‘.

Since then representatives of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and the Advertising Standards Authority have met to try and clarify the situation. Following what was described as a ‘constructive meeting’ a joint statement was issued:

The CIPR, ASA and CAP have agreed a number of actions to clarify the ASA’s extended digital remit as far as it relates to public relations.

The ASA and CAP have confirmed that online public relations would not be covered by the CAP Code. The exclusions within the CAP Code relating to public relations, including ‘press releases, other public relations material and editorial content’, underline this. The ASA is concerned only with marketing communications, which includes advertising, sales promotion and direct marketing.

As discussions around some boundaries are particularly complex in the online environment, the CIPR will provide the ASA and CAP with a clear description of current public relations practice and activity examples, including social media activities. That input will provide the basis for further discussions between the CIPR, ASA and CAP on where boundaries should be drawn between marketing communications and public relations. Marketing communications will fall within the Code; ‘press releases, other public relations material and editorial content’ will fall outside the Code.

The CIPR, ASA and CAP are committed to continuing productive discussions.

Personally I’m not totally comfortable with the statement (disclaimer I sit on the CIPR’s Social Media Panel) as it’s far too ‘woolly’ – a bit like the ASA’s guidelines. The sentence that really grates with me is ‘The exclusions within the CAP Code relating to public relations, including ‘press releases, other public relations material and editorial content’, underline this.’ It’s just clueless to separate out ‘press releases’ from ‘other public relations material’ and gives entirely the wrong impression about our profession.

It’s the age old problem of some marketing people people not truly understanding what public relations actually is. The idea promoted by some marketing people that ‘press releases’ are a form of marketing communications is simply daft – some are and some aren’t. The best most definitely aren’t.

I look forward to seeing how this discussion develops as the CIPR provides the ASA and CAP with a ‘clear description of current public relations practice and activity examples’. My view is that as this happens it will simply highlight how difficult it will be to actually implement/enforce the code.

It’s also hard to see what the point of it is. Responsible public relations people already abide by the CIPR and PRCA codes of conduct which set out clear ethical guidelines. Activity is also covered by legislation in the form of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. It’s hard to see quite what the ASA is capable of adding to this.

And surely the reason the ASA exists is because of the sheer amount of dodgy practice by the advertising industry. Even a casual viewer of consumer TV shows like Watchdog will note that it’s advertising that is constantly being called out as misleading customers. And frequently the ASA is so lenient that it considers some of the misleading advertising to be acceptable. Want to advertise a hair care product using a model with fake hair extensions, that’s fine according to the ASA so longer as you put a disclaimer in tiny print. In my book it’s dishonest and unethical and I’m not sure I want people who think it’s OK to be involved in regulating my professional practice.


About Stuart Bruce

International communications consultant and PR trainer specialising in online public affairs, digital corporate communications, online PR and social media; frequent national media commentator and conference speaker.