The Friday Roundup: The ASA’s misstep

Some things aren't quite as simple as first they seem. And when this is the case, it's good practice to consult widely. And on this count, the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has failed.

On 1st September, the ASA announced: "Landmark agreement extends ASA's digital remit". The scope of its Committee of Advertising Practice, the body responsible for the CAP Code governing UK advertising, will extend to "apply in full to marketing communications online, including the rules relating to misleading advertising, social responsibility and the protection of children. The remit will apply to all sectors and all businesses and organisations regardless of size."

Now who could possibly argue with that?

Indeed, the Digital Marketing Association simply repeated the news on its website. Hugh Burkitt, Chief Executive of the Marketing Society, conveyed his full support in a letter to the FT. No word yet (or that I can find) from the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

So what's the problem?

Well, being a founding member of the CIPR's Social Media panel, I'm going to be a little biased, but it appears to me that no-one else has grasped exactly what's going on here. Indeed, the CIPR is the only dissenting voice I know of so far. Despite having received reassurances back in May that the CIPR would be consulted, the ASA's announcement this week did not get run by the CIPR.

And what contribution would the CIPR make? Well, I can only speak for myself here, for the moment, and it goes something like this.

I couldn't agree more that deceptive, dishonest, opaque or misleading marketing communications should be frowned upon. We should do everything we can to help organisations of all types, governmental, for-profit and non-profit, to become transparent and open. To engage in honest and forthright communications with all stakeholders. To seek to influence, sure, but also to seek to be influenced. To be porous to the world, to sensitise everyone in the organisation to the zeitgeist, to humanise the corporates and, in a turn of phrase I picked up from Brian Solis, to socialise them.

This has been a hard slog to date. The 20th Century climate of control has been difficult to shrug off, despite the widespread adoption of social media signalling quite clearly that the world has changed. Information technology has revolutionised the marketplace, and in the words of the Cluetrain Manifesto, the market is now a conversation.

The marketing team is no longer solely responsible for or in control of marketing. The PR team is no longer solely responsible for or in control of PR. Both will set out the strategies to best achieve the business objectives, but execution demands they harness the support of the entire organisation, the oft-called ecosystem of channel, partners and suppliers, and the wider publics.

This process is cathartic. A new daylight illuminates the issues and, some might say, disinfects some of the odious practices that went undetected in previous times. Hey, some companies actually apologise when they mess up nowadays!

When you think about it, deception and dishonesty actually take some doing. They demand control. They demand isolation. Precisely the characteristics of the influence supply chain (and again, I use 'influence' to mean influence flows in all directions) that are rendered impossible upon socialising the organisation.

But the announcement this week by the ASA potentially halts this disinfection in its tracks. Perhaps they thought it was working too slowly, but perhaps, without talking to the CIPR, they weren't cognizant of it in the first place. Rather, their intended role, from 1st March 2011, may only serve to make organisations more nervous about ceding control to the wider organisation, more anxious about opening up and empowering everyone to take part in the conversation.

Lord Smith, the former Labour culture secretary who is chairman of the ASA, claims: "This significant extension of the ASA's remit has the protection of children and consumers at its heart." It may well have it at its heart Lord Smith, but some things aren't quite as simple as first they seem, and your plans may have precisely the opposite effect.

Let's talk.

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