CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/E-MAIL POLICY - John Tylee investigates the policies agencies have for porn in company e-mails

The unauthorised viral e-mail depicting an act of necrophilia that slipped out of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO is a timely reminder of the potential damage the explosion in digital activity can inflict on an agency's image and reputation.

Of course, it's hard not to smirk at some of the most high-profile e-mail clangers. Like the jpeg featuring Carol Vorderman in front of a Countdown board containing the phrase "Wank me off", which found its way to the TV presenter and the head of religious broadcasting at Yorkshire TV. Or the case of Claire Swire, whose e-mail to her boyfriend complimenting him on his sexual prowess ended up providing light relief on screens across the world.

More seriously, these incidents highlight the destructive power of this still relatively new and ubiquitous communication system. Within the ad community, however, this power often appears unrecognised and uncontrolled.

Indeed, several agency chiefs contacted by Campaign were unable to say with certainty what their policy was on e-mail use or whether one even existed.

One reason for the apparent lack of interest seems to be that the e-mail culture has become so rapidly ingrained within agencies that staffers have come to regard it as innocuous. "You're quite likely to say things in an e-mail you'd never write in a letter, Chris Cowpe, the BMP DDB joint chief executive, says. "It's almost like a phone call."

But it isn't. For one thing, the Obscene Publications Act applies to images transferred by e-mail. For another, the upcoming Data Protection Act will allow employers to open private e-mails if they have clear evidence that the law is being broken or company rules are being flouted.

Marina Palomba, the IPA's legal affairs director, says: "Staff should remember that e-mail systems belong to the agency, not to them, that no offensive material should be sent or passed on and that any received should be deleted immediately."

Agency bosses are generally relaxed about e-mail abuse, believing that the fad for porn is in decline. Bates UK reserves the right to vet staff e-mails. However, Chris Herd, the managing director, says: "When e-mail access became widespread we all used to get lots of pornographic material, but the novelty has worn off."

At D'Arcy, the agency's London chief, Barry Cook, says: "You have to judge any breach of the rules on its merits."

He adds: "There's a big difference between a bit of smut sent to a few people for a lark and some really offensive material which goes around the world."

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1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).