Be careful what you tweet for…

Communicating with your customers online just got that little bit more difficult. In Ireland at least.

The Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland (ASAI) has broadened its remit and from 2 January 2013, all digital marketing communications will fall under the regulation of the authority. This marks the first time digital communications such as social media and blogs will be regulated in Ireland and it follows a global trend where online advertising is becoming more and more regulated, just like its offline counterpart.

In Britain, for example, rules on digital communications were introduced last year and celebrity endorsements were the first to fall foul of the regulations. The British Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled that tweets by Nike-sponsored footballers Wayne Rooney and Jack Wilshere breached its guidelines on advertising in social media and Nike thus became the first UK company to have a Twitter campaign banned. Whether the ASAI will be as quick to take action against companies in Ireland which breach its new guidelines remains to be seen.

The ASAI published details of its extended remit after consultation with the industry. There were differing views on what content should be covered by the rules, with content generated from consumers proving to be a complicated area.

Orla Twomey, assistant chief executive of the ASAI, gives the example of consumer feedback about a product or a service which is then posted by the company on its website or emailed to other consumers or re-tweeted. This is acceptable if the feedback contains claims that can be proved by the company but, if they cannot, it could be deemed false advertising.

Meanwhile, if a company is paying a blogger to write favourable reviews about its products or services this is OK. However, it must be made clear to the reader and the consumer that these aren’t the thoughts of the writer and that the company is paying for the review.

What’s almost certain is that, in the short term at least, the new powers of the ASAI are going to create a lot of difficulties for companies which engage heavily in online communications as they try to determine what’s acceptable under the new regulations and what’s not. This will be particularly difficult until the advertising industry has previous rules and judgements to go on. However, the ASAI is aware of this and has given advertisers a three-month grace period from when the new rules are put into force. During this time the ASAI will investigate and resolve complaints informally: complaints will not result in a formal decision from the independent complaints committee.

Although increased regulation of online advertising can only be seen as a good development for consumers, it does highlight once more the increasing need for companies to have a clear and well-defined online communications strategy in place (particularly for social media). In addition, companies need to ensure that they’re constantly up-to-date on any regulation changes in this fast-evolving area of communications.