GUEST POST: A critical analysis of the comms of the doomed European Super League

The European Super League idea launched by 12-clubs started with fanfare but within days the six English teams involved quit. Chris Lepkowski who has worked as head of media and content at a Premier League club takes a critical eye at the comms of the sport’s Cuban missile crisis.

It barely lasted 48 hours.

11.11pm, Sunday April 18. “The Super League will open a new chapter for European football,” began the first of many ill-synchronised social media tweets.

By Tuesday 10.55pm, it was game over. Arsenal, one of English football’s gang of six, had stepped out of the confessional with its head bowed: “We made a mistake, and we apologise for it.”

At least they apologised. The others took their time. Liverpool’s John W Henry waited until Wednesday morning to post his 2.27minute mea culpa to ‘LFC’ staff and fans. Too little too late.

On reflection, this will be remembered as the most incredible 48 hours in modern football. This was sport’s Cuban Missile Crisis. It was a showcase of brinkmanship, a complete lack of awareness and of no appreciation for its paying audience. It was a public relations horror show.

The background

But first, the backstory. In short, continental club football in three countries effectively broke up on Sunday night – for a couple of days at least – to create The European Super League. Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs were ready to leave behind English football to join Italian giants Juventus, Inter and AC Milan. Accompanying them would be Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid. So far, so good. Sadly for them, their plans were derailed when Germany’s major clubs – including Bayern Munich – and Paris Saint-Germain opted out. Domestically, a furious fans’ back-lash followed.

This was sport’s Cuban Missile Crisis.

By Tuesday night, the English clubs began to opt back out. Manchester United announced their chief executive Ed Woodward would be leaving.

How did the Super League become the biggest PR own-goal since High Street jeweller Gerald Ratner referred to his low-cost silverware as ‘total crap’?

There were several flashing lights. Firstly, the brand. The Super League website looked worse than a Word Press blog. The logo looked like it had been designed using children’s Scratch Art.

Multiple comms teams

And then there was the make-up of the Communications. Clubs from the five countries – also including the aborted entry of the German and French clubs – were each represented by individual media partners. No Com France and No Com Spain represented the interests of their clubs, while Verini & Associati looked after the Italian clubs. B2P Communications were plotting the German PR assault, with iNHouse leading the media messaging on behalf of the English clubs. I should point out, these are all heavyweights of the communications world. We aren’t dealing with a bedroom-based PR wannabes here, but signposting you to major players in the international comms game with award-winning reputations.

Big-hitters signed-up

iNHouse may sound familiar. They should. They are run by former Downing Street advisor Katie Perrior, who was director of communications on Theresa May’s watch. Ms Perrior led the public relations campaign for Boris Johnson’s successful London Mayoral campaign in 2008, and also worked with Theresa May between September 2016 and April 2017.  The nuances of a heavyweight political landscape might be appropriate for swinging public opinion towards or against a faltering government, but football supporters are simplistic souls. We love our sport because of the colour, the sounds and the smells of the matchday experience. We love our club because it shapes our lives, our friendships, our relationships. The club is an extension of our family. We don’t always like our club; but we always love our club. We have no care for financial models or balance sheets. We treat outsiders with suspicion. The onus is on you, the club, to make us feel welcome. Especially during these times. That was totally lost.

English fans were forgotten

Yet iNHouse were immediately pitching the wrong message to the wrong audience – the tone was for a non-English, non-traditional audience. It was about capturing and harvesting new fans in different time zones, far away from football’s heartlands.

Furthermore, the social and digital media output was confused. The implication was the gang of 12 clubs would remain part of their domestic leagues while also contesting the European Super League. Fine, only Premier League rules don’t allow this. Were the clubs even aware they were under Premier League L9 they have to ‘obtain prior written approval of the Board’ before entering another competition? Seemingly not. If you want to play the game, learn the rules.

Then there was the timing: why 11pm on a Sunday night? One theory is that the clubs were trying to pre-empt Monday’s UEFA announcement of the revamped Champions League – a competition they were now effectively withdrawing from. Another potential reason was to capture interest in the Asian and American demographics – who were either waking up on Monday morning to news of this breakaway, or able to absorb it for the final few hours of Sunday. In any case, it wasn’t to suit the European audience – strange as it might seem for a European competition. It’s also entirely feasible the media leaks during the day prompted a hasty social media-loaded scattergun disclosure of the club’s intentions. It wasn’t so much coordinated, as shambolic.

But more so the communications became muddled because 12 clubs were being led by strands of strategic messaging in three separate countries – if you exclude the German and French interest, which never materialised. Not only did those strands need to be aligned, but they also needed to run hand-in-hand with the respective departments of each of the dozen clubs. In other words, a lot of different networks needed to be in sync. Is it any wonder the communications was so chaotic? Also, football cultures in England are different to those of Spain, which are not the same as those in Italy. Yet they were delivering in the same tone.

I’ve worked in communications for the private and public sector. I served as head of media for a Premier League football club, was communications manager for a politician and held the same role for a major privately-owned multi-national company. I’m fully aware that trying to keep senior executives and high profile individuals on message can be a major challenge. At best it can be a frustrating exercise in taming egos and calming people who aren’t used to being told ‘no’. At worst, you might as well be trying to herd 10 cats into a phone box. As much as I sympathise with communications managers and press officers, this is a crisis they had to own. They failed.

Above all else, the communications completely missed the target when it came to football’s main stakeholder: the supporters. We haven’t enjoyed the colours, smells or sounds of a football match since March 2020. Senses are heightened. Where we once stood on a terrace, we have now been forced to perch at the end of the laptop or on a handheld device, in the ‘spectator stand’ commonly known as social media. And that’s where the clubs got it badly wrong. The declarations to join the ESL came out and then…nothing. Silence. Between Sunday night and Monday lunchtime, there was barely any official follow-up. In short, they treated the supporter with disdain.

Money will come first

The following day Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp had to answer questions about his employers, rather than the usual soft-touch pre-match interviews. (That Liverpool were party to this announcement just a few days after the Hillsborough anniversary remains beyond comprehension). Pep Guardiola of Manchester City was also put on the media spot. Players were outraged. High profile employees had been hung out to dry. Supporters at Chelsea took to the streets with their own brand of messaging, splashed across home-made banners. By Tuesday night we went to bed wondering if the previous 48 hours had really happened. The European Super League departed as quickly as it arrived. But return it will. Because football will forever put money first.

Football has many lessons to learn from April 18-20, 2021. Likewise so does Comms; not least how it delivers key messaging and how it should target different stakeholders. 

As for this European Super League, as Ratner might say: actually it was ‘total crap’.

Chris Lepkowski is a sports journalism lecturer at Birmingham City University.

Picture credit: Bert Verhoeff / Anefo used under a creative commons licence.

GUEST POST: How connecting with Facebook groups boosted a page’s reach by 2,000 per cent

Connecting with Facebook groups to share a Facebook page’s content is transforming the reach and audience of one museum’s online presence Francesca Cox explains.

Like many people working in small museum, somehow I’ve ended up as the ‘social media person’ by default and it has just ended up being added to my growing to-do list. 

I had no real clue what I was doing but threw stuff out there regardless.  Some of it stuck, much of it didn’t.  It felt like an uphill battle that we weren’t winning.

Then came lockdown and we had to close our doors.  It was scary.  What could we offer our public? What could we offer them to let them know we were still there and had something to offer them?  That part of the job that I couldn’t have felt less confident in was suddenly our lifeline.

So I sat at home making content.  Doing step-by-step crafts for families locked inside with little to do using stuff they might have to hand.  It was tough to start with.  We didn’t have that many followers and the Facebook algorithms were a real problem.

The success was encouraging but when I experimented with other types of content that I thought would appeal to our older visitors, our fabulous archive of historic photographs, the result was tumbleweed. 

I was ready to throw in the towel and just accept that there was just no on-line audience for that type of thing.

Then the opportunity came along for some actual training and I grabbed it with both hands.  I had no idea if it would help but figured it was all good experience.  The Essential Comms Skills Booster sessions run by Dan Slee were hugely informative and very enjoyable and it was really interesting to exchange experiences with trained comms people who were struggling with their own social media issues in lockdown. 

But we’ve all been to training sessions where we’ve been fired up in the moment but weeks later it’s all fizzled away.  But some of the ideas were so do-able that I took the plunge and put them into practice. 

For me the hallelujah moment has been his advice to share content to Facebook groups.  I started tentatively at first, sharing the museum’s content with a group I’d long been a member of.  Straight away the results were obvious and the reach went up by 91 per cent.  Buoyed by this, I looked for other groups and picked out a couple that might hit a different target audience and found a couple that were based around sharing photographs of the area. 

I shared some more of our lovely photographs that before had sunk without trace.  The result was quite frankly astonishing.  Not only in the sheer numbers of people that we were reaching but in the reactions.  Hundreds of likes, hundreds of comments – real interactions with the public that museums dream of and a dramatic increase in followers 

People were sharing their stories, catching up with people they’d lost touch with and sharing their own photographs. 

Four posts reached over 42,000 people compared to four similar posts that managed a very dispiriting 1,835 in total – a rise of over 2,000 per cent.

As we come to the end of a full covid year, our total reach is up over 1,000 per cent on the previous year and I couldn’t be more pleased.  This terrible year has counted for something.  I feel so much more confident that the museum has something to build on.   So, does this expert stuff work?  You’re damn right it does.

Francesca Cox is Assistant Curator at Walsall Leather Museum. 

Learn more about the ESSENTIAL COMMS SKILLS BOOSTER sessions here.

ANGRY NOISE: Racist and other abuse faced by public sector comms is endemic… here’s some steps you can take to fight it

Footballers have been hitting the headlines for a zero tolerance approach to racist abuse.

Swansea City, Birmingham City and Glasgow Rangers have all boycotted social media for a week because of ongoing abuse.

It’s hard to argue against that.

However, in a recent survey of more than 400 public sector communications people I carried out it shows 12 per cent have seen racist abuse.

That’s an increase of half since the first three months of lockdown.

Look at the figure for more general verbal abuse and the figure rises to 19 per cent.

So, can we just boycott social media?

Unlike football clubs, the public sector doesn’t have the luxury of boycotting a platform for a week in the middle of a pandemic. It needs to be where people are so it can talk to people.

But should people just go on regardless?

Of course, not.

Who cares?

We all should care, shouldn’t we?

Well, we should but frankly there’s a load of people who don’rt even know that this is taking place. In very simple terms, if you’re in the trenches answering social media queries every day there’s a good chance you’re getting worn down by it.

If you’re a manager or head of comms, the further you are away from the social media inbox the less idea you have this is going on. There’s a swathe of central government communications people who have literally no idea this is taking place at all.

What can be done?

I’ve blogged before about the need to have a set of social media house rules in plain English that say what you’ll do and what you’ll put up with. Having it spelt out in black and white means you can take action.

I’ve also heard the suggestion that incidents of abuse should be logged as health and safety incidents.

I couldn’t agree more.

The UK Health and Safety Executive classes violence at work as verbal abuse and threats as well as physical attacks. Looking further into it, all workplaces need to be tackling this.

The HSE’s Preventing Workplace Violence and Harassment download sets out the problem well:

Employers are responsible for identifying and managing the risk of
harassment and violence at work. They should provide clear policies
in relation to harassment and violence, detailing their own
responsibilities, as well as those of their workforce, to raise awareness
of related issues among the workforce, and set standards for
workplace behaviour.

But that’s fine in principle. How do you take the first step towards action?

The HSE have some useful advice on this.

Running a poll of employees and then tell people the results is a useful way that line managers can start to discover and recognise the problem.

That’s a useful first step.

How about racist abuse?

The Citizens Advice Bureau has a useful resource that guides you through the problem of racist abuse in the workplace. It also covers abuse around religion.

Employers need to set out what action they’ll take, what support is there and what steps they’ll take if they think the matter is so serious that a criminal case needs to be brought.

Finally, join a union. I’ve been in the NUJ since the mid-1990s.

It’s time that we took this seriously.

GUEST POST: A/B testing Facebook versus Nextdoor

Nextdoor is a US platform with 4 million UK users that signs people up to Facebook group-like communities. Join as council, fire or police under a partnership agreement and you can get your messages sent directly to each member. Interested? But how does it look in action? Lucy Salvage posts the same content to Facebook and Nextdoor and measures the impact in a one-off case study in an area that demands further investigation.

When I first heard about NextDoor, I have to admit I was sceptical.

I was not enamoured with the idea of yet another social media platform consuming so much of my time. So I tried to avoid it for as long as I could. I tried to forget it existed. This strategy worked well, until our neighbouring council’s started using it. They liked it. “Damn them!” I thought.

So with a big inhalation of breath, we signed up. It took a while for us to be set up as a local authority profile by NextDoor itself – they are much more hands-on and customer-servicey in this respect than Facebook. We had a contact and they assisted with the set up which included individual log-ins for our team of three.

That done, all was left to do was add a profile picture and then we could start posting. We have decided to use it for important alerts and public notices rather than it become a duplicate Facebook or Twitter; we are just not resourced for the same level of monitoring and engagement unfortunately.

What’s great about NextDoor is the nature of it’s set up. By using postcode data to build “neighbourhoods”, it allows users to easily send target messages to geographical areas – for free.

Despite my initial scepticism, I was quite taken a back by how many “members” there are using NextDoor in our District. 15,219 to be exact. That’s 9.5 per cent of our population compared with only 3.49 per cent of people who follow our Facebook page; and we haven’t even had to work for years to build that audience.

By only our third post we have been able to see the benefits of using NextDoor. A post about fly-tipping has surprisingly received only 1,400 fewer impressions than the same post on our Facebook page. Unfortunately, the analytics are not as detailed, and the only stats available seem to be impressions.

A/B testing data

Wealden District Council Facebook vs NextDoor

 FacebookNextDoor
Followers/members5,59415,219
Percentage pop.3.49%9.5% (18% households*)
 Fly-tipping post
Impressions53963,996
Reach5502n/a

*NextDoor is able to give this figure due to sign-up being reliant on postcode data.

What I also like about it, is that there is an option to disable comments on posts. This is really helpful as we intend to primarily use NextDoor as a broadcast platform due to our resource capability.

The Facebook post with 5,396 impressions

The Nextdoor post with 3,996 impressions

As for the fly-tippers, they were identified in a matter of hours, leaving our waste team in awe of the power of socials, and myself convinced that NextDoor might not be that bad a thing afterall.

Lucy Salvage is media and communications officer at Wealden District Council.

NUMBERS: I’ve read the global web index social media report 2021 so you don’t have to

Data is always good to take a look at as it shows an ever changing landscape.

Here, the Global Web Index report gives some useful social media data that’s relevant for 2021. You can download your own copy of the report here.

The impact of the pandemic

When the pandemic started, social media bucked a trend and became more social. People turned from passive consumers back to creating content and talking to each other.

Keeping in touch with loved ones has become the most important reason for using social media.

In the UK, we spend one hour 46 minutes a day on social media.

We don’t always trust them but we rely on them

Social media, the report says, doesn’t have large amounts of trust but we have come to rely on it for news. connecting and entertainment.

But social media causes anxiety

In the UK

Facebook remains the UK’s favourite with 22 per cent naming it as their most favoured platform.

Globally, Instagram is tops with under 24s, Messenger with Millennials (24 to 37-year-olds), WhatsApp with 38 to 56-year-olds who are also known as Generation X with those older favouring Facebook.

Augmented Reality in social media has become a trend

No doubt becaise of the pandemic, but Augmented Reality – AR – has emerged as a comnsistent trend. AR gives people the flavouir of beinbg somewhere else. With people confined to the house for long stretches in 2020 no wonder this has emergeed.

Public sector chums may be looking enviously at Pepsi’s AR marketing where QR codes on bottles unlocked video. But as with all trends they will become affordable and achievable.

Livestreaming has come of age

Interestingly, live feeds have become increasingly important globally with more than 90 per cent of TikTok users live streaming and almost 50 per cent of Facebook users watching a live feed.

Each platform has a purpose

One thing I really liked about the GWI report was the classification of each platform into its purpose. It’s rue. They do different things.

Facebook / Messenger

  1. Messeage friends and family.
  2. Post and share photos and videos.
  3. Keep up to date with news and the world.

Instagram

  1. Post and share photos and video.
  2. Find funny or emntertaining content.
  3. Follow or find infio on brands.

LinkedIn

  1. Keep up to date with news and the world.
  2. Find funny or entertaining content.
  3. Post and share photos or video.

Twitter

  1. Keep up to date with news and the world.
  2. Find funny entertaining content.
  3. Follow or find info about products or brands.

Snapchat

  1. Post or share photos or video.
  2. Find funny or entertaining content.
  3. Message friends and family.

TikTok

  1. Find funny entertaining content.
  2. Post and share photos or video.
  3. Keep up to date with news and the world.

Stories are sticking

Many people I’ve spoken to have scratched their heads with stories. They are the shortlived upright streams tacked onto the main social channels. But the GWI report does show people are engaging with them.

On Snapchat more than 90 per cent use them while on Instagram the figure is above 70 per cent which is marginally ahead of Facebook.

If brands want their audience to know something, they should wrap exciting, memorable content around that something and repeat, repeat, repeat.

GWI Social Media report, 2021

Conclusions

As with all global studies that have a UK element, the data is there to be used not for sharp corrections of direction but like a fishing boat captain an eye on the horizon for sunshine and black clouds.

COVIDCOMMS #40: Can we just stop using committee speak in our comms, please?

Landscape

It’s a few days after lockdown restrictions have been eased in England and people have taken to the parks in numbers.

They’ve met-up with friends and family and they’ve drunk a few cans and eaten a few barbeques.

The aftermath has been piles of rubbish.

On the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on Monday morning a guest from a national charity spoke how this scene was ‘unacceptable’ and it got me thinking – yet again – about how we settle for euphemisms.

They are ‘concerned.’

They are ‘worried.’

The action is ‘regrettable.’

Football managers are ‘delighted’.

Strikers are ‘gutted’ to miss the penalty.

In a committee, these words are code that soften the blow of fierce criticism. In public they are dreadful words that pull punches.

When I was a reporter I used to be asked by a news editor what I meant when I wrote a particularly wordy paragraph. When I translated it into plain English I was then asked to write that instead.

It’s long since time we worked out what we actually mean and then write that instead.

OPEN UP: What steps to make Facebook public groups more open will mean for public sector comms

When Mark Zuckerburg stood up seven months ago and promised nice new shiny toys for Facebook groups people paid attention.

One of the biggest shiniest toys is about to drop and its worth being on your radar

You probably know you can have two basic types of Facebook groups. Closed and open.

You have to be a member of a closed groups to see what people are talking about and be able to post in them yourself. Eighty per cent of community groups are closed,

Then you’ve got open groups where anyone can see what’s being debated.

As part of the change, groups that are open will allow people aren’t members of the group to comment and take part. How will they find them? You’ll see in your own timeline content from groups you aren’t a member of.

How?

Because the algorithm will point things your way based on the things you talk about and like.

So, if you talk about the Boothen End at Stoke City there’s a chance you’ll see something from an open Stoke City Facebook group where people are talking about how great the Boothen End was.

This video explains it…

You may have heard me banging on about the importance of local community Facebook groups.

Giving open Facebook groups even more reach makes them even more influential in the community. It makes them even more attractive places to post content.

That’s important.

SURVEY: Stress and a tsunami of mental health explodes the ‘days off’ working from home myth

There were more than a few who raised an eyebrow to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s claim that people working from home in a pandemic were having ‘days off.’

If you’ve been working in public sector communications since the pandemic started you’ll be especially disapproving and data would support you.

A bumper 78 per cent of people said they were more stressed working since pre-COVID days in the latest tracker survey I ran in January and February.

Often, people will be working from home with a managed return to the office still some distance away.

But what other numbers shine through?

Stress is levelling off. Almost eight out of 10 reported feeling more stress working as public sector communicators than before the start of the first lockdown. That’s the same figure as October.

Mental health is suffering. In the survey, 73 per cent said their mental health had deteriorated since the start of the pandemic – a decline of eight per cent since the question was asked in October.

Isolation is increasing. In the first two months of the year, 55 per cent reported feeling more isolated compared to 34 per cent in the summer.

Physical health is suffering. Restrictions on exercise and team sport were the backdrop to 57 per cent of public sector comms people saying this was their experience – seven per cent worse than the last round of the survey in October.

Verbal and racial abuse is easing but significant. A total of 12 per cent saw racist abuse down by four points while verbal abuse has eased two points to 19 per cent.

A feeling of working for the common good remains. Encouragingly, 76 per cent still feel as though they were working for a higher purpose which is almost unchanged since the summer and autumn surveys.

Feeling part of history remains. In the first weeks of the first lockdown there was a sense of the momentous and this has stayed the course unchanged at 36 per cent.

What do these figures say?

It’s clear that the pandemic has been the opposite of ‘days off’ to public sector communicators near the sharp end. They may not be working directly on COVID wards but they have not had an easy ride.

Less visible than nurses and carers, NHS, local government, central government, police and fire communicators have fought a spare room frontline working in conditions less than ideal.

They deserve credit not being dismissed.

More than 400 people took part in the third round of an online tracker survey of public sector communicators in January and February. Earlier iterations had taken place in June and July and September and October. The next round of polling will take place in April.

NO COMMENT: Facebook may allow you to ban comments on posts… but is this a good idea?

Can it be true…? Facebook look as though they are bringing in the ability to ban comments on updates to pages.

The widely reported move looks as though it is being introduced after a court ruling in Australia which found that page admins were legally responsible for comments.

Understandably, some admins will be responding with glee at this news.

It must be tough to switch on the laptop at 8am and we faced with a wall of crap from anti-vaxxers. people complaining about potholes, too many bins, not enough bins and a load of other things beside.

So, switch off comments as default?

Some will undoubtedbly say ‘yes please!’ to this news.

But it got me thinking to how this may impact on the delivery of your message.

Blocking comments will undoubtedly see less interactions with a post. There’ll be no too-ing and frow-ing of conversation and debate either in support or against.

So what?

Well, trouble is, comments and discussion scores really well with the Facebook algorithm that enables your post to float higher organically into more people’s timelines. No comments? No algorythmic brownie points.

There’s the argument, and I’ve some time for that, that says that organic reach is so blunted these days anyway it probably won’t make loads of difference.

You’ve also got the additional issue is the accusation that your organisation are acting against he spirit of democracy. Look, everyone! It’s cancel culture! You bunch of snowflakes! There may be something in this but this kind of shouting sort of underlines the need to remove comments in the first place.

Besides, Twitter did something like this recently when they gave the ability to limit who replies to posts and the sky didn’t fall in.

Besu

Besides from organic reach you do have two other ways to boost your reach. You have boosted posts that involve you spending money and you also have the steps you take to drop the post into a Facebook group, too.

The bottom, line in all of this is that blocking comments isn’t without impact on your communications.

You’ll need to balance that on a case-by-case basis before you post.

NO ZOOM: A decision to return to in-person town hall meetings is bad for democracy

When the pandemic forced us to re-think how we do things some people fell into the trap of thinking this is how they’d always be.

Clearly, the argument went, people will see how better new ways are and people won’t want to go back.

I wasn’t one of them.

In 1789, the French revolutionaries were met by counter-revolutionaries who wanted to turn the tide of history back. This is always the case with any social change.

One of the good ideas was using video conferencing like Zoom to run meetings. The step allowed for people to log on at home to follow the proceedings. In the case of Handforth Parish Council it also showed how badly democracy was performing.

More public and more accountability were the spin-offs of Zoom meetings.

The counter-revolution

This sense of progress has come to a halt with a letter from local government minister Luke Hall MP to English councils where he points to updated guidance here that recommends meetings return to in-person delivery.

Rules for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland councils are issued by their home government.

The key passage is here:

A good day for bad councillors

There’s no data to accompany this to suggest the decision will make local government more open and accountable.

Heaven knows if this will bring more people into seeing what their council was doing.

Indeed, it’s hard to see the binning of Zoom and a return to dusty council chambers attended by elderly men and women and one man and a guide dog in the public gallery is a positive step in 2021.

A Zoom meeting with no face-to-face contact is inherently safer than a public meeting even with some space between seats and a bottle of hand gel by the door.

It’s also worth noting that Parliament will continue online meetings until the summer at least.

Mind, it’ll be good for councillors who don’t like transparency and accountability.

History tells us that sensible decisions taken in a crisis won’t mean they stay. If you work in central government you may recall the mid-pandemic request for staff to go to the office to save town and city centres. All of a sudden it was about saving the coffee shops when in reality it was about the big pension funds who have vast assets lying empty.

What’s next?

Of course the office isn’t dead, it’s just waiting for the counter-revolution.

EDIT: Speak of the devil.

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