Rachel Hawkes: New online regulations will have serious repercussions for charities using social media

The ASA's new rules for organisations using the web will impact how charities use channels such as Facebook and Twitter, says our online columnist

Rachel Hawkes
Rachel Hawkes

As of the 1 March 2011, the Advertising Standards Authority introduced more robust regulations that gives it greater reach and more control than ever.

The UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising (CAP Code) will now impact marketing communications on a charity's own website/s and on third-party sites under its control. This includes channels such as Facebook, Twitter and other social networking pages, as well as blogger outreach.

These changes may very well be the start of legitimising social media marketing, and from that perspective alone, it’s an exciting and welcome addition. 

In summary, the new rules mean that you must not be misleading, offend or cause harm through your online marketing – which of course is a good rule of thumb anyway.

However, it’s not quite as clear-cut as just applying the same offline advertising regulations to your own marketing; there’s lots of grey areas and things that will probably only become clear as times goes on.

These new changes are certainly going to change how we think, and navigate communications and marketing (most particularly in the social space, which I’ll cover below), but they aren’t necessarily going to have a huge impact on what we do.

What I mean by that is the regulations have been introduced to bring "enhanced consumer protection, particularly for children", by ensuring marketing is honest, decent and transparent, which we should be striving to achieve at each and every point anyway.

So, how does this affect individual areas of digital marketing and communications?

Website

For the first time, your charity’s website will be held to the same standards as your marketing leaflets, posters and other offline advertising. It’s important to note though, that this does not include what is deemed as ‘editorial content’. 

That means, pages that are aimed at raising awareness, encouraging people to take action or are educational are not included in this remit, but pages that directly or indirectly involve donations, fundraising and the selling of products (such as memberships, books and so on) are.

Facebook and Twitter

FacebookEverything you post on your charity’s Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social networking sites will need to be compliant with the UK advertising code. From images, to videos, to wall posts and tweets, it all comes under the ASA’s new digital remit.

However, it goes further than that. The CAP Code extends to the Charity ‘Liking’ a post on its Facebook page (or even on other Facebook pages of the charity) and to retweeting other people’s tweets on Twitter - what are usually considered to be harmless ways of showing appreciation of your supporters engaging with you in those environments.

Before 'liking' or 'retweeting', you should consider whether you can substantiate any claims made, or whether the post is otherwise harmful or offensive.  

It would be easy to think that you can avoid these potential grey areas by erring on the side of caution and taking a hands-off approach to social media, but that’s not going to win you any digital friends and followers.

You should actively participate in your social communities – but if a message or tweet is somewhat dubious in its content, then it would be prudent to not reply, like or RT.

Blogs

The CAP Code also extends to commercial partnership sites. This means, that if you are undertaking blogger outreach as part of a campaign, then you should ensure that any commercial benefit received by the blogger is clearly out in the open. This should be the case anyway, and brands that have not historically followed this common sense approach have seen it backfire on them.

Another example of this would be if a blogger, with the approval of your charity, is fundraising on their blog and you have editorial control over the content – particularly, if the blogger has been paid (monetarily or another benefit such as tickets to an event, link exchange, etc). 

It would be advisable to ensure everything has an audit trail is out in the open so blog readers are informed upfront.

User Generated Content

In general, UGC does not fall under the ASA remit because its content is created by individuals rather than an organisation. However, if the organisation chose to incorporate UGC into its own marketing efforts then it definitely does fall into this new area.

As it’s a rather grey area as UGC goes, it will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Discussion boards

Many of you will own and operate a discussion board for people to come together and give and receive peer support, so how does the ASA’s new remit impact a member discussion board? 

A forum can be considered as a marketing channel, so yes the content here too will be under the ASA’s digital umbrella, although it’s unlikely that this will include posts that aren’t directly related to donations, selling or fundraising. Similarly with UGC, this is a rather grey area that will probably only become clearer as enforcement of the rules play out.

Many discussion board moderators are volunteers rather than employees, and may offer fellow users advice that is incorrect, vague, misleading (such as steering conversations towards fundraising) or unsubstantiated. As your moderators represent the charity, you should ensure they are briefed as soon as possible on the new regulations, and at the very least ensure they use a disclaimer stating that their views and opinions expressed are their own within the forum signature. 

It is still unclear just how the ASA will consider active and non-active moderation of forums and UGC. Comments made by discussion board users would not fall under the CAP Code, even if moderately moderated (i.e for offensive comments). However, if a moderator was to start deleting for example, negative comments about the charity or promoted posts that encouraged donations, that would be included under the new regulations.

As with all aspects of these rules, it will only become more clear as examples start to come in and the ASA work to define clearer guidelines with quarterly reviews.

Repercussions

The ASA may choose to make examples of organisations not abiding by the new regulations early on, but it’s probably more likely that due to the limited resources of the organisation, penalties will be applied to those that are seen as continually breaching the rules or failure to cooperate to ASA instructions to rectify any incidents.

To this end, the ASA has said that any failures to comply with the regulations may see the company named on a dedicated section of the ASA website.

Having the cooperation of search engines (as well as a £200,000 contribution by Google), the ASA will also have the authorisation to remove any of your charity’s paid-for search advertising, and it may even take out its own advertising about your non-compliance. All of which have the potential to impact how and what is returned in natural search results about your charity.

Ownership

If you have a legal team or adviser, have them look over the new remit alongside the person or persons responsible for digital communications and marketing (including external representation); ensuring internally everyone is comfortable with how this will impact day-to-day communications and marketing activities online. Consider having a dedicated person responsible for compliance, both off and on your charity’s website.

CAP is offering charities free training, webcasts and guidance via its website and CopyAdvice service, so if you are in doubt, your first step should be to contact CopyAdvice and talk to them.

The ASA was consulted in writing this article.

Rachel Hawkes is an account director at communications consultancy Elemental

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