Beware the co-regulators … key bodies wielding power over publishers

By MARK PEARSON

Several self-regulatory and co-regulatory bodies hold powers that can impinge on the work of journalists, PR consultants and new media entrepreneurs. They include:

  • The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). < http://www.acma.gov.au/ > The broadcast regulator’s powers can impact upon public relations consultants, freelancers and new media entrepreneurs in a range of ways. PR consultants need to ensure their audio packages and video news releases (VNRs) comply with the code of conduct and classification requirements of the particular broadcast media they are targeting (community, commercial radio, pay television etc). The ACMA also administers the national Do Not Call Register where citizens withdraw their phone numbers from telemarketing dial-ups. It also polices the Spam Act 2003 – the legislation ensuring you can unsubscribe from junk mail posts to your email, mobile phone and messaging services. It is important public relations consultants and new media startups work within the bounds of this legislation or they could face heavy fines. For example, in 2013 Cellarmaster Wines received a $110,000 infringement notice from the ACMA for sending marketing messages in breach of the Spam Act. Some of the messages were sent without an opt-out choice, while others were sent to customers who had earlier selected to opt out of the company’s email promotions (ACMA, 2013).
  • The Classification Board. < http://www.classification.gov.au/About/Pages/Classification-Board.aspx >. This is a unified system of classification of films, video games and some publications, established under the Classification Act 1995. Public relations consultants and new media entrepreneurs need to be aware of its requirements because almost all films and computer games have to be classified before they are legally permitted to be made available. The Board decides which of the classifications such as violence, sex, language, themes, drug use and nudity should apply. The Board also classifies material submitted by the police, Customs and the ACMA including internet sites, imported publications, films and computer games.
  • Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB). <http://www.adstandards.com.auThe Advertising Standards Bureau administers a national system of advertising self-regulation through the Advertising Standards Board and the Advertising Claims Board.  The ASB handles consumer complaints about advertisements across a range of media. For example, a complaint about the Facebook page for the beer Victoria Bitter in 2012 was upheld on the grounds that people had posted comments to the social networking site that were in breach of advertising standards. They included coarse language, sexual references and comments demeaning of women and homosexual people. Comments on the page were managed by an agency under the supervision of the Carlton and United Breweries marketing team which agreed to improve its frequency and effectiveness of comment moderation after the decision (ASB, 2012) [pdf file].
  • Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). < http://www.tga.gov.au/ > The TGA is a Commonwealth Government agency with the power to regulate therapeutic goods (medicines, medical devices and blood products). Some advertisements directed at consumers require approval before they can be broadcast or published while advertising prescription-only and some pharmacist-only medicines to the general public is prohibited. The term ‘advertisement is defined broadly in the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989 to include “any statement, pictorial representation or design, however made, that is intended, whether directly or indirectly, to promote the use or supply of the goods”. This can cover public relations material and advertorials so freelance health writers and public relations consultants to pharmaceutical companies need to be well versed in its requirements and restrictions.
  • Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC). < http://asic.gov.au/ >. ASIC is an independent Commonwealth entity operating as Australia’s corporate, markets and financial services regulator. Its role is to ensure Australia’s financial markets are fair and transparent, supported by confident and informed investors and consumers. It is set up under the Australian Securities and Investments Commission Act 2001 (ASIC Act), and enforces large sections of the Corporations Act. Public relations consultants, freelance financial reporters and new media entrepreneurs need to be especially cautious about its restrictions on ‘rumourtrage’ – the spreading of false or misleading rumours about a company’s float or performance  which are associated with market manipulation – and its policing of the powers and duties of company directors. It also has tough requirements that advertisements for financial products do not mislead. For example, in August 2013 ASIC investigated advertisements for a 1% interest discount on a specified home loan package offered by Credit Union Australia Limited (CUA), run on television, in cinemas, on the company’s website and on public transport in major cities. However, it had not specified some of the terms and conditions of the discount in its ads. ASIC accepted ‘enforceable undertakings’ from CUA that it would honour the discount to all customers on the package as an alternative to court action (ASIC, 2013).

© Mark Pearson 2013

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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