ATA Plans Self-Regulatory Body for Teleservices

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The American Teleservices Association board of directors has voted to create a self-regulatory organization for outbound and inbound teleservices, a plan it will announce at its Oct. 3-6 convention in Miami.


The organization would be independent from the ATA and other interest groups and would set ethical guidelines and review teleservices business practices, ATA CEO Tim Searcy told DM News. The ATA hopes to involve other trade groups in the organization and has begun to contact them with the idea.


The association also will seek input from consumer groups as well as regulators and law enforcement in building the organization and devising the ethical guidelines, Searcy said. It would be self-incorporated and run by a board representing businesses and consumers.


The SRO's role in enforcing teleservices behavior is as yet undefined, Searcy said. One possibility would be that the board could issue certifications to companies that demonstrate compliance with ethical guidelines and remove that certification for noncompliance.


The group will provide ethical guidance in areas where no federal regulation exists, especially concerning inbound teleservices, Searcy said. The teleservices industry learned the hard way with outbound what can happen when it leaves the government to set standards.


"We acknowledge that our past history has been reactive and has been -- by necessity -- combative," he said. "The board feels the future of the channel will not be fought over outbound but inbound. If we had created this relationship 15 years ago, outbound would not be in the position that it is."


Working with federal regulators could be difficult, especially considering that the ATA has sued the Federal Trade Commission to overturn the national no-call registry. Searcy said that direct government involvement in the SRO would be limited but that he hoped regulators would recognize the benefit self-regulation has for consumers.


"We'd like to work with them rather than opposed to them," Searcy said of federal regulators. "They're not in a position to bless what we're doing, but we know the government would like to enjoy the benefits of good self-regulation."


Searcy also acknowledged that making the SRO most effective would require the involvement of consumer groups, which likely will be skeptical as well. For consumer groups, the SRO will present a chance to have a voice at the table when setting standards for teleservices practices, he said.


An organization that already has an SRO in place is the Electronic Retailing Association. In April, it launched the "ERA Self-Regulatory Program" and placed it in the hands of the National Advertising Review Council, an independent body founded in 1971 by national advertising trade groups and the Council of Better Business Bureaus.


The review council has the power to investigate claims made via DRTV advertising and forward complaints to federal regulators if marketers don't address problems voluntarily. The program has sent one case to the FTC and is preparing to send another, ERA president/CEO Barbara Tulipane said.


The ERA just learned of the ATA's proposal but supports self-regulatory efforts in general, Tulipane said. The most important job in creating an SRO is making it independent and respected.


"You have to put a process in place that is fair to both sides," she said. "We had to find an independent body that would have the respect of both marketers and the public."


Direct Marketing Association spokesman Louis Mastria said he also had just learned of the ATA's proposal. Numerous federal regulations already exist for teleservices, and the DMA operates its own ethics committees, so the ATA must be careful not to "reinvent the wheel," he said.


"We'd welcome him working with our committee," Mastria said. "You don't have to build something new."


Searcy said the ATA recognizes that its SRO won't be as effective without involvement of other trade groups, consumer groups and the government.


"This is not about pride in the ATA," he said. "This is about the importance -- to our members and the industry -- of doing something to stem the tide of overly burdensome regulation and at the same time preserving consumer interests."


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