By Claire West

Millions of companies could already be in breach of the Advertising Standards Authority's new standards for advertising on social media sites, a new report reveals. Meanwhile Interflora's case against Mark and Spencer at the European Court reveals the threats that online tools can pose to a company's brand image and recognition.

In a recent survey commissioned by Dorset based company, Liz Lean PR working in conjunction with social media and IT consultancy, SocialTech, half of all employees have admitted to writing about the company they work for on a social media website, such as Facebook and Twitter. However, a staggering three quarters of those who have written about their company online either did not know of, or had no guidance from their employers regarding what they could or couldn’t write.

Although another survey by WeCanDo.Biz Ltd revealed that the number of their respondents who were are happy to mix professional and personal contacts together on Facebook had dropped to 21% this year, businesses should still be concerned about a lack of clear division between business and leisure uses of the site. This is particularly in light of the introduction of the new ASA CAP Code.

From March 1st, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and the ASA have extended their remit to cover online communications. The new remit will cover marketing communications on advertisers own websites and on other free online platforms, such as social networking sites, to guarantee the same high standards as in other media.

The major concern for companies, revealed by the survey, is that without social media guidelines, businesses are potentially leaving themselves wide open to being penalised by the ASA for their employees’ online activity. Before the rise of the Internet, it was reasonably possible to maintain a firm grip on your brand and its image, however the ephemeral nature of social media marketing has led to a more carefree and careless approach to advertising, with responsibility for companies' social media engagement often being passed down to more junior positions with the theory that a lack of experience in brand management will be compensated for by a greater familiarity with the world of social media.

Liz Willingham, Managing Director of Liz Lean PR said: “The results of our survey highlight the importance of good communication from the top down. As ambassadors of your brand, employees need to be made aware and given comprehensive guidance on how to conduct themselves in all situations to protect the overall reputation of the company.”

Luke Williams, Managing Director of SocialTech, commented: “As this research reveals, businesses need to be educated about the risks involved when undertaking PR and marketing on social platforms. 84% of people use social networking sites for personal reasons, which can lead to mixed messages and a blurring of the boundaries between work and play. We recommend developing a sound business driven strategy to help deliver clear, successful online communication campaigns.”

The rise of social media and online advertising has created a marketing minefield, in which companies have to be more vigilant than ever in protecting their brand names.

Whereas before a brand might have communicated with the public via the occasional press release or your customer service department with individuals' queries and complaints, now, if people want information they will use a search engine and find it, on news outlets, blogs, social media forums and even Wikipedia.

Social media means not only do companies need to speak to the outside world, but they need to engage with it as well. From Facebook, to twitter, to blogs to forums, communicating is now about a two-way conversation. Anybody can set up a website or post a comment about your brand and so now, more than ever, organisations should be looking to protect their brand to ensure that its values are not being used to someone else's advantage.

An example of this is the current dispute rumbling on with Interflora and Mark and Spencer (M&S). M&S has been paying Google to have its online flower business promoted every time a consumer searches for 'Interflora'. Interflora is now taking this 'piggy-backing' action to a European court.

The actions of M&S were perfectly legitimate and are being replicated over and over by businesses worldwide. Bidding for a competitor's Google Ad Words is an obvious tactic under the present rules.

Brands can put a stop to this, however. If a business name is a registered trademark, complaints can be filed with Google to stop other companies using the name in their adverts. As yet, however, there is no protection against a trademark's use as a keyword. French companies have taken Google to court on this issue but so far have been unsuccessful.