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The difference between online PR and marketing just got vital

by: isev

on: 1st March, 2011

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The ASA’s extension of its digital remit raises questions about the difference between PR and marketing communications.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is extending its digital remit starting March 2011. Whereas previously it only covered ads in paid-for spaces and sales promotions wherever they appear online, complaints about “ads and other marketing communications by or from companies, organisations or sole traders on their own websites or in other non-paid-for space online under their control” will now be considered.

The communication must be seen to be promoting a sale in all cases, but the scope of what the ASA can regulate will expand considerably.

This is a great step forward by the ASA, as organisations have been using their own websites and social media presences to push products for years. Communicating with consumers online is a great way of potentially creating two-way communications, but in the end this communication is often with the intent to sell something.

Although the ASA and Committee for Advertising Practice (CAP) recognise that a brand or marketer can’t be held responsible for content produced by a third party, if that content is then used in their marketing strategies, they become liable. For example, a customer comment that’s re-tweeted by an official feed, in which case the brand could have to prove that the claims made by the customer are true.

It’s fairly apparent that the ASA needs to control all spaces in which brands may promote themselves, so this just adds another level of consistency. Yet there are some fuzzy areas that raise questions, the most prominent being how you separate marketing communications from PR.

Editorial content, public relations and investor relations material remain outside the authority of the ASA. With the disciplines blurring – PR agencies taking on social media, marketing shops covering online PR and boutiques that sit somewhere in between popping up all over the place – is the line between marketing and PR that easy to identify?

In practice this could be tricky, and it’ll be interesting to see how the ASA cope with differentiating between the two. As the ASA only responds to consumer complaints, if the industry can’t tell the difference – what hope will the consumer have? And how will this affect the amount of complaints they have to deal with?

The ASA can act based on just one complaint, so even though there probably won’t be much of an effect on PR professionals and marketers at first, there are longer-term implications to tomorrow’s changes that mean anyone working online will have to take greater care.

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