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The tragedy of the commons is one of the most useful concepts for understanding the PR industry.

It works well for other sectors, too (think politics, law, or agri-biz) but I’ll focus on my own world for now.

Last month’s Burson-Marsteller/Facebook debacle is but one in a long list of examples of practitioners and/or firms taking cash to do shady work. Most of the time, nothing happens and these players make money and go on their way. However, when folks get caught doing bad things, as B-M did, we all suffer, as humans tend to paint groups with the same brush.

What am I getting at? In effect, our “commons” is our reputation.

It is very clear to me, that any actor who harms the commons deserves to pay. By “pay” I mean a true cost, not just the decline in revenues that the market may deliver following a screwup. Bad actors should also bear the cost a damaged “commons” imposes on other players (in this case the common reputation of an industry being sullied.)

Of course, no one can figure out what precisely that additional cost is.

So what do we do about this? It’s hard: reputation as a “resource” is difficult to define, we do not have a universal code of ethics, lackĀ  a governing body and there is no certification needed to practice PR.

I am loathe to say this, but because this situation is unlikely to be remedied anytime soon, all you can do is carve out your own slice of the “commons” and maintain the hell out of it.

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