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Websites and social media: rules apply there too

Inside the Enterprise: Companies’ web sites, and their social media presence, now have to comply with advertising rules. How many do, asks Stephen Pritchard?

Stephen Pritchard

This week, rules governing advertising were extended to companies' websites, and their social media presence.

The new rules set out to ensure that businesses do not use their websites, or other online media, including Facebook and Twitter, to mislead consumers. The ASA already policed paid-for online adverts, so in many ways this is a logical extension of the industry's self-regulation powers.

Controlling what businesses say or don't say on their websites, let alone on social networks, will be a much greater challenge than regulating online advertising. Most businesses use an advertising or marketing agency to design and place their ads, and those specialists have a good handle on what is, and what is not, allowed under the ASA rules. Media owners, too, do not want to carry misleading adverts, and can and do reject those that could mislead.

The world of web design, though, is much, much broader than that of paid-for advertising. Anyone can develop a simple website using online tools or Word. Setting up a blog (is a blog a website, as far as the ASA is concerned?) takes minutes on Blogger or Wordpress. Opening a Twitter or Facebook account is quicker still.

Even before the ASA stepped in, businesses were struggling to control who posts information online, and where. There have been plenty of cases of "rogue" blog posts, Tweets or other online messaging that have misled, upset or even libelled members of the public, or which have breached privacy rules. Usually the blame falls at the feet of a junior member of staff, or intern.

The new regulations place responsibility for what companies say online exactly where it should be: with the company's senior management. That is all to the good. But it will be a huge task for the ASA to deal with every possible complaint about a business' online presence.

For companies themselves, especially smaller businesses, even checking that their websites and online marketing complies with the rules will be hard work. Graphic designers, web developers, PR firms, IT teams and others who deal with websites and the information that is on them might have little knowledge of the ASA's rules, unless they also already deal with paid-for ads.

The ASA, and the Committee of Advertising Practice have some useful information on their rules online, and hopefully anyone involved in web development should be able to come iup to speed on what is, and what is not, allowed quite quickly.

And nor, of course, is every part of a website governed by the ASA rules. The extended regime covers "marketing communications", although what that covers will depend to a large degree on the nature of a business. For some sites it might be only a few pages; for others it might well be all their content.

For business owners, though, the priority is to check their online content as soon as possible and if necessary, to act swiftly to remove any pages or posts that could mislead. Acting now is certainly preferable to dealing with an ASA complaint later.

Stephen Pritchard is a contributing editor at IT PRO.

Comments? Questions? You can email him here

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