Community Relations

Don’t Overthink The Little Things

Don’t overthink how you connect and help develop community with people, especially your online community. This is a card I received in the mail today from Artbeats, a company that sells royalty-free video footage. I’ve written about them before on Twitter and Facebook when they were giving away free weekly video clips last year.

Unlike most cards, it wasn’t a preprinted message. It was handwritten by one of Artbeats’ employees, thanking me for picking up a piece of footage that was insanely cheap and asked me if I enjoyed using the footage and to provide them with any feedback, with the letter writer’s card inside.

Now I know they might have people writing these cards every so often to customers, but to hit me up with a personal note, someone who might only pick up one or two pieces of video a year, depending on how much cash I have to spend, that gave me a warm fuzzy the rest of the afternoon. And someone who has never spoken with an Artbeats rep on the phone, much less ever met one face to face.

And something else it did was help convince me that when I finally start shooting my first documentary, any budget we get for extra footage might end up in their bank account.

People too often end up forgetting about the small things that touch people. Writing this card might have taken a few minutes more than sending out a quick email or hitting me up on Twitter, but you know something? This handwritten note made an impact on me, more than any email or Facebook hit. Don’t put too much thought into how to reach potential customers only online, sometimes something as simple as a note will have more of an impact.

public relations, social media, Strategy

Play to Your Strengths

Some of the online discussion has recently asked who is the best to represent your organization in social media. Your PR or marketing agency? Or your in-house experts and communicators?

I’m going to go with your in house people. Having your social media team (which needs to be made up of people in your company from many disciplines – marketing, PR, sales, operations, development, programming, etc) spearheaded by your own employees allows your company to tap into a much deeper knowledge of the products, services, issues, etc. Much more in depth than your PR firm working 40 hours a month on your account.

This isn’t to denigrate the work that firms do for a client – it actually promotes a firewall separating the strengths of a firm and the company in question.  The primary social media content and creation needs should come from your company’s evangelists while your firm can bring the team important insights about your company or a new idea for social media tools (for example). Sometimes that outside viewpoint can give your firm the great ideas to move your organization into a new communications phase.

When you start a communications team/Firm partnership, you need to establish the ground rules for what each side of the equation will do. Be careful to not let the line blur too much, each team will work to their strengths, and the people on each team can hold the other team accountable to working to those strengths.

public relations

PR is not a four-letter word – A Discussion

Note: This is an edited transcript of a Google Wave exchange between Will Reichard of CrossCut Communications (http://will.crosscutcommunications.com) and Benson Hendrix, author of Net News 54 (https://bensonhendrix.com/about/), a blog about new media. It is being cross-posted on both sites.

Several times in the last couple of years, we’ve been asked to present to budding communications students to give them an overview of the world of public relations. We have both been struck that their perception seems to be that public relations as an industry is equivalent to “spin.” We’re not naive. We know there’s a reason that PR people have been called “flaks,” and we know there’s a reason that shows like “Mad Men” continue to capture the popular imagination. Still, we thought we were past all that. We’re both huge fans of PRSA’s code of ethics, and in our experience, the PR industry is conscientious about doing the right thing. We’re both former passionate journalists who believe that PR has a vital role to play in modern organizations. Here’s part of the conversation we’ve been having on the subject.

Will: My theory is that PR is like legal representation–we’re all entitled to a vigorous defense within ethical bounds. That’s our system. But many of the people I talk with seem to feel the world exists in black and white, as though each situation has one “right” and one “wrong” answer. When I try to explain that situations are intricate and that the best PR people work to ensure that organizations are communicating everything they should be to their multiple publics, I see blank faces. I try to point out that all of us, every one, makes choices about how to present him or herself each day. We choose our words, our clothes, what to post on our Facebook pages, how to sit in a class or walk down the street. We are constantly choosing what to communicate. People seem to have a very hard time separating conscious communication from malicious manipulation. They tend to forget we’re all using these techniques every day.

Benson: One of my greatest concerns about public relations is that we as PR professionals are all too often seen as “spinners” by members of the C-Suite. This is a view that has been perpetuated on the profession not only by members of the media, including some memorable rants from Rachel Maddow – comparing one PR firm to “The PR Firm Hell Would Hire” – but also by a minority of public relations professionals who are beyond willing to please their bosses. There are firms willing to do what is necessary, and usually those same firms specialize in taking on clients whose public personas are seen as less than positive (see Wal-Mart, oil industry, nuclear industry, etc.). (And now to contradict myself, this isn’t exactly a bad thing. These companies can stand behind a record of providing jobs, bringing in money, etc., to a local community–if it’s true. When they get into problems is when they say these things without actually doing it, in the hope that the PR team can “spin the facts.”)

One of the main tenets of Edward Bernays’ book “Propaganda” is to not sell a product, but to sell the need for a product. Following up on that idea, good public relations professionals try to sell causes, ideas and concepts that might impact a person’s beliefs, instead of selling a group, or just a cause, etc.

Will: Perhaps it’s that our society is gravitating as a whole toward polarizing platforms. A world of “American Idol,” a world communicated in 140-character bursts, doesn’t have a lot of room for acknowledging that nuance is essential, that the “truth” is an intersection of multiple viewpoints, each of which must be clear and critical.

Or maybe it’s that we’re all so conscious of the controlled and mediated nature of communications that we want to dislike anyone who acknowledges it and calls attention to the fact. Maybe PR–as, ironically, one of the most upfront institutions when it comes to its motivations–occupies an important space as something we can point to and say, “We are not that.” We’re not so hyperattentive to our personas that almost any image we can project is by definition manufactured and, thus, largely impersonal.

Benson: Another reason could be that most people don’t realize the impact that public relations efforts have had in their day-to-day lives. Have you ever signed a petition for a politician? What about called in to a talk radio show on behalf of a cause? These are but two tactics that PR pros helped craft into the effective tools you see today. Many non-profits, especially non-profits that advocate, have taken cues and clues for effective communications strategy from public relations efforts of the past. In fact, later this month there will be a big communications conference for progressive non-profits (some of which don’t really realize how PR has impacted their groups).

How the public personally views each of these industries should be less of a concern for PR people (because for every person opposing a site like WIPP, there’s another in favor of the jobs it brings to the area). What should be a bigger concern for PR professionals is the ongoing view that we are nothing more than cleanup. Perhaps a future role for PR professionals is to go beyond PR and into Corporate Social Management, looking at the best moves for a company to make before they make them.

Will: Great points, Benson. In the executive MBA program at UNM, we spent a fair part of the program studying corporate social responsibility, which is heartening. Cultures change very slowly, but at least things are changing. Communications as a management objective is creeping closer to the C-suite. And fortunately, part of what managers are learning now is to look for a certain level of professionalism when they’re hiring public and community relations staff. I know you had mentioned recently that we’re seeing a lot of unskilled agents creeping onto the scene.

Benson: That really is another problem we in PR have been dealing with–the tendency for anyone to say “I’m a publicist” after watching 4 episodes of Entourage or Arliss, and the unwillingness of people who represent PR (either in PRSA or “stand-up guy” PR practitioners) to call out these faux-publicists when they do something wrong. I’ve heard stories about PRSA wanting to institute a “licensure” test for people to conduct PR professionally, but I don’t see that happening. Because unlike practicing law or medicine, you can’t stop people from getting in front of a camera and talking, regardless of how they sound.

Conclusion: What do you think of when you think of public relations? What does the industry do well, and what could it do better? Thank you for reading.

public relations

PR is not a four-letter word

Note: This is an edited transcript of a Google Wave exchange between Will Reichard of CrossCut Communications (http://will.crosscutcommunications.com) and Benson Hendrix, author of Net News 54 (https://bensonhendrix.com/about/), a blog about new media. It is being cross-posted on both sites.

Several times in the last couple of years, we’ve been asked to present to budding communications students to give them an overview of the world of public relations. We have both been struck that their perception seems to be that public relations as an industry is equivalent to “spin.” We’re not naive. We know there’s a reason that PR people have been called “flaks,” and we know there’s a reason that shows like “Mad Men” continue to capture the popular imagination. Still, we thought we were past all that. We’re both huge fans of PRSA’s code of ethics, and in our experience, the PR industry is conscientious about doing the right thing. We’re both former passionate journalists who believe that PR has a vital role to play in modern organizations. Here’s part of the conversation we’ve been having on the subject.

Will: My theory is that PR is like legal representation–we’re all entitled to a vigorous defense within ethical bounds. That’s our system. But many of the people I talk with seem to feel the world exists in black and white, as though each situation has one “right” and one “wrong” answer. When I try to explain that situations are intricate and that the best PR people work to ensure that organizations are communicating everything they should be to their multiple publics, I see blank faces. I try to point out that all of us, every one, makes choices about how to present him or herself each day. We choose our words, our clothes, what to post on our Facebook pages, how to sit in a class or walk down the street. We are constantly choosing what to communicate. People seem to have a very hard time separating conscious communication from malicious manipulation. They tend to forget we’re all using these techniques every day.

Benson: One of my greatest concerns about public relations is that we as PR professionals are all too often seen as “spinners” by members of the C-Suite. This is a view that has been perpetuated on the profession not only by members of the media, including some memorable rants from Rachel Maddow – comparing one PR firm to “The PR Firm Hell Would Hire” – but also by a minority of public relations professionals who are beyond willing to please their bosses. There are firms willing to do what is necessary, and usually those same firms specialize in taking on clients whose public personas are seen as less than positive (see Wal-Mart, oil industry, nuclear industry, etc.). (And now to contradict myself, this isn’t exactly a bad thing. These companies can stand behind a record of providing jobs, bringing in money, etc., to a local community–if it’s true. When they get into problems is when they say these things without actually doing it, in the hope that the PR team can “spin the facts.”)

One of the main tenets of Edward Bernays’ book “Propaganda” is to not sell a product, but to sell the need for a product. Following up on that idea, good public relations professionals try to sell causes, ideas and concepts that might impact a person’s beliefs, instead of selling a group, or just a cause, etc.

Will: Perhaps it’s that our society is gravitating as a whole toward polarizing platforms. A world of “American Idol,” a world communicated in 140-character bursts, doesn’t have a lot of room for acknowledging that nuance is essential, that the “truth” is an intersection of multiple viewpoints, each of which must be clear and critical.

Or maybe it’s that we’re all so conscious of the controlled and mediated nature of communications that we want to dislike anyone who acknowledges it and calls attention to the fact. Maybe PR–as, ironically, one of the most upfront institutions when it comes to its motivations–occupies an important space as something we can point to and say, “We are not that.” We’re not so hyperattentive to our personas that almost any image we can project is by definition manufactured and, thus, largely impersonal.

Benson: Another reason could be that most people don’t realize the impact that public relations efforts have had in their day-to-day lives. Have you ever signed a petition for a politician? What about called in to a talk radio show on behalf of a cause? These are but two tactics that PR pros helped craft into the effective tools you see today. Many non-profits, especially non-profits that advocate, have taken cues and clues for effective communications strategy from public relations efforts of the past. In fact, later this month there will be a big communications conference for progressive non-profits (some of which don’t really realize how PR has impacted their groups).

How the public personally views each of these industries should be less of a concern for PR people (because for every person opposing a site like WIPP, there’s another in favor of the jobs it brings to the area). What should be a bigger concern for PR professionals is the ongoing view that we are nothing more than cleanup. Perhaps a future role for PR professionals is to go beyond PR and into Corporate Social Management, looking at the best moves for a company to make before they make them.

Will: Great points, Benson. In the executive MBA program at UNM, we spent a fair part of the program studying corporate social responsibility, which is heartening. Cultures change very slowly, but at least things are changing. Communications as a management objective is creeping closer to the C-suite. And fortunately, part of what managers are learning now is to look for a certain level of professionalism when they’re hiring public and community relations staff. I know you had mentioned recently that we’re seeing a lot of unskilled agents creeping onto the scene.

Benson: That really is another problem we in PR have been dealing with–the tendency for anyone to say “I’m a publicist” after watching 4 episodes of Entourage or Arliss, and the unwillingness of people who represent PR (either in PRSA or “stand-up guy” PR practitioners) to call out these faux-publicists when they do something wrong. I’ve heard stories about PRSA wanting to institute a “licensure” test for people to conduct PR professionally, but I don’t see that happening. Because unlike practicing law or medicine, you can’t stop people from getting in front of a camera and talking, regardless of how they sound.

Conclusion: What do you think of when you think of public relations? What does the industry do well, and what could it do better? Thank you for reading.

Community Relations, Tech

Technology is Nice, but You Have To Walk the Walk

Tonight, political junkies like me kept tabs on the Coakley-Brown special election to replace the deceased Ted Kennedy as Massachusetts’ U.S. Senator. Attorney General Martha Coakley – as the Democratic candidate who had the backing of the DNC, White House, Kennedy family, your old crazy uncle, my dog, etc – was expected to be the runaway victor, as the Democratic candidate running for the seat of one of the Democrats most honored members. So she didn’t really campaign after the primary election, instead she was content to go on vacation and relax, waiting for her due reward.

Her opponent, Republican Scott Brown, on the other hand treated this campaign like any other race. Getting online with greater urgency than his opponent was a definite benefit (see “Obama, Barack” for another example of great technology use in politics) but another thing Brown did was act like an old-fashioned candidate. Holding events, meeting people, walking from house to house (in the snow, with no shoes, uphill both ways…), and introducing himself to his potential constituents.  In other words, he engaged in community relations to an extent that Coakley didn’t even attempt. (there are other elements as well, this is just a quick take)

Her expectations of a coronation blinded her and her team to a surging Brown campaign that ran a good show.  Why mention this now, when pundits all over the country (with more skin in the game – no pun to Mr. Brown’s … “special pictorial” mentioned in the campaign) are talking about this far more in depth than I?

Because there is an important lesson here for businesses CEOs and organizational leaders.

All of the technology in the world sometimes can’t make up for a lack of wanting to get involved with people on a personal level.  It’s about community relations and personal interaction.  “Boots on the ground,” and listening to people’s concerns over a cup of coffee before you act, whether in politics or business, can never be understated.

Remember, people want to be able to look you in the eye, or ask you a question and feel they are being heard and their problems taken to heart. There are a lot of strengths from social media communications that you can benefit from as well – open discussion, ability to take criticism well, being up front and honest with your stakeholders, promises to do the best that you can and try to live up to them.

But really, aren’t these virtues that you should have anyway? “Mad social media skills” or no “mad social media skills?”

blogging, social media

Another Take on "Blogger Relations"

Social media is more about social interaction and being online as another means of message distribution than it is about “blogger relations.”

The more I think about this, the more I am convinced that we in public relations should not be focused as much on blogger relations in our social media planning and usage, we should instead be focused on creating cool content and building relationships with other bloggers/podcasters/etc. It involves being engaged with people on a smaller level, much the same way as the mainstream outlets are fragmenting more and more. But interpersonal relationships are like that, you can’t be best buds with thousands of people.

It’s the argument of the “cool kids” vs. the “popular kids.” The “cool kids” are too busy creating content to worry about whether or not you are hanging out with the “popular kids.” If you have to choose, you should pick the road less traveled – the one of creating content to attract an audience of interested people who want to listen to what you have to say, and then developing your online connections.

Take Twitter (please! Just kidding) for instance.  You can have tens of thousands of followers on Twitter, but is that anything more than just a status symbol? It’s especially telling for people like Ashton Kutcher, or other celebs on Twitter – those people with millions of followers, but are only connected to a couple of dozen themselves. In cases like this, these accounts are used as purely broadcast platforms for people who want to “see a part of the life” or “catch of a slice of AK.”

This is not a bad model, in and of itself, and it leverages the popularity of these celebrities quite well. But for average companies or people, it’s not really a model that works. Remember, people are interested in connecting with people, not with companies. It’s the uncommon company that can get away with having a fierce group who just want to be part of the brand (i.e. sports teams, Apple, etc)

In the meantime, it might be better for people to focus more on developing the content that will interest and attract people to their “brand” and produce enough content to keep them interested in returning. Believe it or not, the content might not be directly related to their work or product. If the people keep coming to check it out, your personal brand might achieve that “top of mind awareness,” or to put it another way, might stick in their mind.

When I spoke a little bit about this on the video linked below, I didn’t realize that the Godfather of Social Media, Chris Brogan had given a different take at his site.  This is just my humble two-cents.

Are We Focusing Too Much on Blogger Relations? from Benson on Vimeo.

blogging, public relations, social media

When Bloggers Attack – Swinging Back

I love working in social media – blogging, podcasting, video work, social networking and more.  All of them give you ample opportunity to interact with others. Sometime for good, and other times you’ll find you or your organization getting blasted by a blogger, content creator or just a plain old curmudgeon.

While many people in social media, a lot of whom are incredibly knowledgeable, and many communications officers feel that your organization should “rise above” any kind of crossing swords with people online who are attacking you, I wish to disagree. There is a line in the sand where you should be willing to kill any detractors with kindness (always remember to be understanding and offer the honey-laden olive branch as much as possible) but once that line is crossed you should be able to respond factually, forcefully and passionately.

Many social media peeps, especially when looking at business social media, will tell you to keep your statements and content as even-keel as possible. You never want to engage in mud throwing or flame wars. I agree with them on this, but where we might diverge a little bit is my opinion that when your organization is being attacked, possibly unfairly, by online peeps who are unwilling to look at facts, or try to skew facts to match a caricature they created to attack your organization.  Then these are the times when you will need to stand up, use the facts as your sword and shield, and call out your detractors.

This isn’t an open call to start flame wars and a rousing round of “nanny nanny boo boo.” Keep your responses slightly snarky (maybe a little more. Remember that you want to keep a little bit of a bite to them). They need to be classy, but sharp as a razor’s edge. You want to remind your opposition that if they want to misquote you, or tweak facts to match a false claim, that you are going to repeatedly respond by throwing high and inside.

Look at how various political campaigns ran their social media outlets during the 2008 and upcoming 2010 campaigns. They brought in bloggers who already had followers, but more importantly were passionate about their candidate’s stands (or, let’s be honest, became passionate about their positions once they started receiving a check) and were willing to stand up for them. In addition, Barack Obama’s campaign built online tools from scratch to help foster their community of supporters.

Balancing the Playing Field

If your organization is going to have “what it takes” to respond to online attacks this way, you need to have a CEO who has the spine to understand that for a short while, the attacks might intensify as your opposition tries to determine how far you will go before folding.  In order for this to work, you have to be willing to repeatedly defend your position with this idea of “classy passion.” Again, humor is one of your best weapons here.

Look at what the Obama White House is doing right now with FOX News, they are repeatedly responding to FOX News when they believe facts are in error.   For a while the peeps on FOX News were calling it the “War on Fox,” or some such thing.

There used to be a saying that you never go to war with people who buy ink by the barrel or tape by the yard.  Meaning it was never in your best interest to cross swords with people who run the media, because they can come after you day after day for any perceived slight.  That used to be true, but with the advances in social media, social networking (for audience building) and online communications you suddenly have the tools to create your own media outlet to respond, “balancing the playing field” more in your favor.

Being the old rugger I am, I’ll leave you with this analogy. While you want to play cleanly as much as possible, and give people the benefit of the doubt, I’ve found that one of the best ways to stop someone from throwing punches in the ruck is a good, old-fashioned cleat rake every so often.

Community Relations, public relations

What’s your Game?

With all of the talk of social media and public relations, something I haven’t seen much talk about is the importance of community building and coalition relations. Not “community building” in the sense of using a Facebook group or Ning site to connect online, but a real, face-to-face community relations ground game – one of the big pillars of a communications program.

A lot of public relations is seen as how to spin the media – what are we going to tell the press to get them off of our backs, or give our side of the story out of some kind of “fairness”? But if you look at the two root words of PR, public and relations, how can PR not be about working with members of the general public, which is the foundation for community relations.

Community relations is about developing connections with people who agree, and sometimes more importantly, disagree with your organization. It’s about building coalitions with people and groups that feel a connection to your organization, whether it’s a school (like UNM), a company (like Apple or Microsoft), a candidate (Barack Obama, anyone?), and creating a community with them.

2178346655_92a7a61746 Some things to consider are:

Are you looking beyond your “borders?” Too often we consider the people right next to us to be our neighbors or peers, without looking past them to other community or civic groups who you influence. They might be more understanding of your needs, should your immediate neighbors be unduly aggressive towards you.

Do you have any boots on the ground? By “boots on the ground,” do you have any organizations or groups in the community who are willing to lend support to your cause? People who are willing to advocate for you, work phone banks if necessary, hold or attend town hall meetings to speak on your behalf or share ideas? This starts to develop like a political campaign – who are your most important generals in the field? Who can you depend on to promote your story?

Remember to listen carefully. The old saying goes, “we all have two ears and one mouth in order to listen twice as much as we talk.” Listen to what your constituents have to say, and take it to heart. It might not be easy for you to hear, especially if you have upset your neighbors, but it’s important to look at things from their point of view. More often than not, these groups want to be listened to, to know that you are taking their views into consideration. (also, actively listen – take notes, take pictures if necessary, post them all online with your initial thoughts and ask the same people you spoke with to provide their input)

Who are you listening to? This usually comes up when you spend too much time dealing with your peers, whether you’re a PR person commiserating with others at the bar, or a CEO or board president listening only to your vice presidents or fellow CEOs. One of your most important community relations weapons is the old “Town Hall” meeting. (which we’ve all heard too much about over the summer) But not all Town Hall meetings are like the ones being stormed over by activists. You want to take the opportunity to meet your constituents, detractors and potential supporters and give them the chance to talk face-to-face with you.

Public relations and community relations really work hand in hand, without one the other becomes much harder. If you take the time to develop good relationships with your community – whoever that is – you may be able to develop better public relations than any standard “PR Plan” can come up with. What about you, dear readers? What advice do you have for people (candidates?) who want to improve their relationship with the local community? Like they ask in the World of Warcraft commercials, “What’s your game?”

(Picture is Church, Pie Town, New Mexico, courtesy of the Library of Congress and taken by Russell Lee)

blogging, public relations, social media

The Future of PR Firms?

Just a quick thought or two before crashing for the night. (hopefully they make sense) For a while I’ve been pondering the future of public relations and advertising/marketing firms in this new media world. (Why wait until now to share this with y’all? What can I say, I’m shy.) While many people have been talking about the future of the mass media in this world, I don’t know how many people have pondered the other side of the coin. I was talking with Crosscut Communications‘ guru, Will Reichard, about this after the Social Media NM meetup last week and we bounced some ideas off of each other about the potential future for PR firms.  So up front I’d like to thank Will for letting me bend his ear and giving me some really good pointers.

In this New Media Age the majority of businesses need to not only be in business, but also be media outlets. While news outlets are shuttering, laying people off or switching to three days per week publishing schedules, businesses need to be able to present their own talking points/communication starters online, circumventing the mainstream media to a certain extent.

But what is the impact on PR firms? Those who are used to sending out press releases and newsletters, and creating plans based around getting more “earned media” from an ever shrinking news universe. Are they going to go out of business?

Of course not. There will still be a need for PR firms to work on getting “earned media” despite the shrinking newshole, but savvy PR firms will shift their focus. In my previous post I talked about PR professionals (working for organizations, I don’t think I made that clear) serving as diplomat-facilitator-community relations.  Communications firms should be on the cutting edge of new media, social networking and content creation. They should take over the role of teacher, leading their clients through the basics of new media/social media, and building social networks (whether on Facebook or Ning, or checking out what Pursuant is doing and trying to match that) and let their clients go on developing messages, creating content and developing outside evangelists.

This won’t lead to the clients dropping the firms, far from it. Clients will need these firms to develop online infrastructure and create/manage video pieces, podcasts and other new media projects for their clients. And there will be a big need for these services, as many companies, especially smaller companies, won’t have the facilities to make high quality video or audio podcasts, and won’t have the connections with regional or industry bloggers.

(Now’s probably a good time to point out that people working in PR firms should already be blogging and connecting with others in the industry their clients work in. Or at least monitoring the chatter.)

Just my two cents to mull over tonight as we drift off.  G’night y’all.

social media

“Don’t Look At Me!” – Twitter and “off the record”

This is starting to become quite the epidemic for communications professionals.  Not all communications professionals, but those who still insist on operating in the pre-2.0 mindset of a centralized command and control structure.  These people still think they can dictate the terms of engagement to the social media-sphere.  The actor in question this time is Matt Farrauto, the former N.M. Democratic party head honcho and currently working as a communications professional on Capitol Hill.

In an exchange with myself and with the Albuquerque Journal’s Washington Bureau chief Michael Coleman, Farrauto claimed we didn’t get his point about not commenting on his Tweets.  They were off the record – he said so.

Specifically, Farrauto put up a sentence on his Twitter account stating that all of his “musings” are off of the record.  It’s like standing in the middle of a room of people, some of whom are his friends and others of whom are reporters, and shouting at the top of his lungs, then not expecting the reporters to write about any stupid things he said. Right, I really see reporters giving up that kind of control.
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