How One Wrong Word Can Create A Huge Crisis

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on December 7, 2014 – 6:02 am

William Davis, a writer for the American Nuclear Society and a friend of this blog, recently sent me an article he had written about the huge difference one word can make.

His article focuses on an unremarkable incident that occurred at a nuclear plant in Ukraine late last month. He writes that the event was little more than a “fault in electrical transmission equipment,” which is common “in the world of power generating equipment anywhere, no matter the power source.”

The real problem occurred when Ukraine’s Premier dubbed this minor incident an “accident.” 

The term ‘nuclear accident,’ so still burned into the minds of so many after Chernobyl and Fukushima, refers to a very serious event.  An event that compromises all the layered, defense-in-depth levels of safety protecting nuclear materials from reaching the environment.

In the case of the Ukrainian Nuclear Power Plant, Zaporizhia Unit 3, no such event occurred and was never approached.”

The Premier’s use of the wrong word, “accident,” led to terrifying but untrue international headlines and even affected Ukraine’s bond market. William’s post is a perfect example of how an ill-chosen word can magnify—or even create—a crisis.

Disaster Strikes

A Similar Example From A Recent Training

We recently conducted a crisis communications drill related to foodborne illness. The scenario began with a report that six employees, all of whom had attended the same catered event, reported to the facility’s health center with complaints of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

We ran this scenario with different groups of trainees several times, and we saw the same mistake during the practice press conferences each time: Every spokesperson referred to this as an “outbreak.”

“Outbreak” is a scary word, especially when it is applied to a foodborne illness that might be the result of an intentional act. Simply saying that word during a press conference would give the media an easy hook—”An outbreak of unknown origin!” —and the facts up to that point didn’t justify such heightened language.

Other trainees in this drill used the word “situation,” which also suggested a degree of seriousness (perhaps even foul play) that was unjustified by the scenario. Those words—”situation,” “outbreak,” “event,” even “incident”—would only serve to make the established facts sound more severe.

What should the spokespersons have done? They should have simply stuck to the facts:

“What we know is that 1,000 people attended an event and that six of them have checked into a local hospital with symptoms of nausea and gastrointestinal distress. They are being cared for and are expected to make a full recovery. We do not know whether a food item might have been the source of this illness, but we are asking anyone else who attended the event and feels similar symptoms to call us at 312-555-5555.” 

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The U.S. Army: Don’t Let The Door Hit You On The Way Out

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on November 20, 2014 – 5:02 am

“For the first time since the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, the Army is shrinking.” So begins a recent New York Times article that profiles several officers who had planned on remaining with the Army for their entire careers but are being pushed out years earlier than expected due to budget cuts.

According to the Times, close to 1,200 captains and 550 majors will soon be out of work, with additional layoffs scheduled next year. And the choices about which officers will remain with the Army—and which will not—are raising some eyebrows:

“Many are being pushed out despite having good records. When the Army announced the impending officer cuts a year ago, officials said they would target officers with evidence of poor performance or misconduct.

But an internal Army briefing disclosed by a military website in September showed the majority of captains being forced out had no blemishes on their records. The briefing, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, also showed that officers who had joined the Army as enlisted soldiers, then endured the demanding process required to rise into the officer corps, were three times as likely as captains who graduated from West Point to be forced to retire.”

NYT Army Story 2

The officers’ stories are full of hardship. Some are receiving dramatically smaller pensions than they expected, others are flirting with bankruptcy, and many are feeling a sense of loss and betrayal. In response, the Army issued a statement that failed to match or acknowledge the emotion of these stories. Worse, it appeared to slight the officers who had been let go:

“Selections for separation are based on a soldier’s manner of performance relative to their peers while serving as a commissioned officer,” Lt. Col. Benjamin Garrett, an Army spokesman, said in an email. “The boards retained those with the highest demonstrated levels of performance and the most potential for future contributions on active duty.”

Ouch. I’m sure the men and women who served were thrilled to see their work dismissed in such cold terms.

This statement suffers from the same problem as the one I highlighted last week regarding the medical center that treated Joan Rivers: It’s bereft of humanity.

US-Army-Logo_thumb.jpg

In fairness, it’s entirely possible that Lt. Col. Garrett’s full statement contained more human language, but was cut from the story by the reporter. Even if that’s the case, this quote highlights the need to only send a reporter a short quote that can’t be easily edited down. As an example, this quote would have avoided the problem of sounding unnecessarily harsh:

“Dismissing an officer for budgetary reasons is always an excruciating decision. Although we made selections for separation based on a soldier’s manner of performance, many well-qualified and decorated officers are not being retained. We honor their service and are fully committed to easing their transitions to post-military life.”

Since this is the second time I’ve written about this topic in as many weeks, I’ll propose a new rule: When drafting a crisis statement, always remember that you’re just a person, talking to another person.

A grateful h/t to presentation coach Gary Genard, who tweets at @GaryGenard.

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Finally: A University Responds To Rape Allegations Well

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on November 18, 2014 – 5:02 am

Brenda Tracy says she was raped 16 years ago by four men, two of whom were Oregon State University (OSU) football players. There was a lot of evidence to substantiate her claim—the men “implicated each other during interviews with police,” and Ms. Tracy “had a thorough rape examination”—but because she chose not to press charges, the four men never faced criminal prosecution.

For the first time since her assault in 1998, Ms. Tracy identified herself publicly last week. In a gripping article written by John Canzano in The Oregonian, she describes being brutally gang raped by the four men over a seven-hour period.

The OSU football coach in 1998, at the time of the incident, was Mike Riley. Back then, he “suspended two of the players for one game and was quoted as saying his players had made, ‘a bad choice.’” Ms. Tracy says that three-word phrase still “burns” her.

Here’s the twist in this case: Mike Riley is still the coach of Oregon State’s football team. But there’s at least some good news in this story. In contrast to other recent high-profile rape (or alleged rape) cases, Coach Riley and OSU’s president responded to the Oregonian report in exactly the right way.

 

Oregonian Website

 

Before proceeding with the rest of this post, let me make clear that the scope of this post includes only the response to last week’s Oregonian article—not Coach Riley’s or OSU’s handling of the case in 1998, which may well have been insufficient.

But Coach Riley was pitch perfect in his response on Friday, leaving the following comment in the Oregonian’s comment section:

 

Mike Riley Comment

 

And OSU president Edward J. Ray offered a lengthy statement worth reading in its entirety:

“I am sure that many of you have read the article just published on OregonLive and being published in three segments this week in The Oregonian regarding the horrific assault suffered by Brenda Tracy in 1998 at the hands of several men. 

I learned the details regarding this assault on Friday. Apparently, statements were taken from Ms. Tracy and the suspects, two of whom were on the Oregon State University football team at the time.

We are told that law enforcement officials in 1998 were not able to bring criminal charges because Ms. Tracy did not wish to participate in a prosecution.  

OSU cannot control the criminal justice system, but I have asked university staff to obtain the police reports for the case and to determine if there are any actions we can take now under OSU’s code of student conduct. There may be no formal course of action available to us but we must try. While legal minds could no doubt explain how it makes sense to have a statute of limitations for sexual assault crimes, I find that appalling. Hopefully, justice delayed is not justice entirely denied in this case.   We are currently trying to get the facts regarding OSU’s handling of this matter in 1998, including what efforts were made then to reach out to Ms. Tracy to help her deal with the terrible physical and emotional harm she suffered. If a case of this nature was reported to the university today, OSU’s Office of Equity and Inclusion would work to stop the sexual misconduct, assist the survivor and prevent a recurrence. 

Ms. Tracy’s journey has been simultaneously heart-breaking and inspiring because of her own capacity to reclaim her sense of self-worth and pursue her education so that she can help others through her work as a nurse. 

There is no statute of limitations on compassion or basic human decency. I understand that Mike Riley, who was our football coach at the time, has offered to meet with Ms. Tracy and would like to have her speak with the football team if she wishes to do so. The immediate response from us to Ms. Tracy is to ask how we can help her address the effects of this violence. It is our hope that any role she is willing and interested in pursuing to help educate our community on the horrors of sexual assault by sharing her story could bring some healing.

This would be of great interest to us, but only if it is helpful to Ms. Tracy in continuing to deal with all that she has suffered. 

We cannot undo this nightmare. I personally apologize to Ms. Tracy for any failure on our part in 1998 in not helping her through this terrible ordeal. This is a moment from which each of us can learn. But it is mostly a moment for us to help Ms. Tracy heal.”  

Wow. Those statements are serious, infused with compassion, and completely victim focused. One wishes that all institutions involved in these types of cases would respond similarly. (That said, it’s worth noting that Mr. Ray’s statement doesn’t mention Coach Riley’s original handling of the case; he may have to address that part of the story if other reporters ask him about it, as I suspect they will.)

Of course, a good crisis communications statement or two doesn’t make up for Ms. Tracy’s 16 years of suffering in near-suicidal silence. But even now, doing the right thing still matters to Ms. Tracy:  

“When I told Tracy about OSU’s reaction and Riley’s wish to think about having her speak to his team someday, she broke down. Of course, she’d love to be part of an educational program, not just for the football team but for any group interested in hearing her story.

‘Maybe that’s where this was supposed to go all along,’ she said.

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Bill Cosby Gives Rape Allegations The Silent Treatment

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on November 15, 2014 – 8:57 pm

Several women have accused Bill Cosby of rape and sexual misconduct over the past decade. But the accusations, which have received only sporadic media coverage in the past, came roaring back to the headlines this week after a fellow standup comedian called Cosby a rapist on stage. 

To make matters worse for Cosby, a Twitter campaign he supported this week that intended to make him a “meme” backfired badly.

Cosby Meme

Although Cosby reportedly reached a financial settlement with at least one of his accusers, he has never been prosecuted. According to Mark Whitaker, a journalist who wrote Cosby’s biography, there have been “no definitive court findings, no independent witnesses.” 

Nonetheless, the allegations are suddenly having a legacy-threatening impact on Cosby’s career. His scheduled appearances on The Queen Latifah Show and Late Night With David Letterman are off, and many media writers are wondering whether his forthcoming NBC sitcom will still make it to air. (Editor’s note: His NBC sitcom has now been canceled, his Netflix special has been called off, and reruns of “The Cosby Show” have been pulled from TV Land.)

Cosby appeared on NPR’s Weekend Edition this morning to discuss an unrelated topic. When host Scott Simon asked him to comment on the allegations, Cosby said….nothing. (Simon had to tell the audience that Cosby was shaking his head). When Simon tried a second time, there was complete silence once again. When Simon tried a third time, still nothing.

Cosby’s silence doesn’t equal guilt. I always keep in mind former California Congressman Gary Condit who, in 2001, remained publicly silent for weeks about his role in the disappearance and murder of intern Chandra Levy. While the public took his quiet public stance as a sign of his guilt, he was later found to have no role in her disappearance.

But whether it’s fair or not (and to be clear, I believe it’s entirely possible that his numerous accusers are telling the truth), Cosby’s radio silence will likely be seen by many—I’d guess most—as a sign of his guilt. And although Cosby has maintained his innocence either directly or through his representatives in the past, he’s had nothing to say on this latest—and most threatening—wave of negative publicity. 

Cosby’s strange silence on NPR guaranteed more publicity for the allegations against him than a banal response would have (e.g. “I’ve answered questions about this topic in the past, and I’m not going to help keep this story alive by commenting further.”)

Bill Cosby

All of this raises a question: If he was unprepared or unwilling to answer a question on a topic that would so obviously come up, why did he proceed with the interview? Why not stay out of the public eye until either the media coverage died down or he had something more substantive to say? Although I usually think that remaining silent during a swirling controversy is a bad idea, remaining silent during a national media interview is an even worse idea.

I was a teenager during The Cosby Show’s run. I loved the program. Now that I have a toddler son, I’ve often thought about buying the series when he’s a bit older and enjoying classic Cosby moments together: Dr. Huxtable taking Monopoly money from Theo; Rudy lip syncing to a Ray Charles classic; the high fives that follow the discovery that Theo is dyslexic. 

But these allegations throw into question for me whether Cosby is the moral force I want to share with my son. My guess is that I’m not alone in those concerns. For that reason, and others that are far more important, my sense is that Cosby will need to address these allegations more directly soon—or risk losing further bookings, his forthcoming show, and his reputation.

UPDATE: NOVEMBER 16, 2014, 10:00 AM:

Bill Cosby just tweeted a statement from his attorney that reads:

“Over the last several weeks, decade-old, discredited allegations against Mr. Cosby have resurfaced. The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true. Mr. Cosby does not intend to dignify these allegations with any comment. He would like to thank all his fans for the outpouring of support and assure them that, at age 77, he is doing his best work. There will be no further statement from Mr. Cosby or any of his representatives.

- John P. Schmitt, lawyer for Bill Cosby”

His refusal to speak will not quell this controversy. If anything, it will achieve the opposite, since it will leave an open, undefended playing field for his accusers to have their stories heard. If he’s guilty of these allegations, his silence might be better for his long-term reputation than an overt confession or unconvincing media interview. But if he’s innocent, his refusal to speak will cement for many, unfortunately, that the allegations are true. 

UPDATE: NOVEMBER 21, 2014

I appeared on Washington’s WTOP radio to discuss this case. You can hear the audio here.

 

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

 


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Joan Rivers: Her Medical Clinic’s Cold Statement

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on November 12, 2014 – 5:04 am

Yorkville Endoscopy—the New York clinic that performed the fatal procedure on Joan Rivers—committed a series of major mistakes while treating her, according to a determination released this week by the New York Department of Health and Human Services. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the violations include the following jaw-dropping lapses:

“Not obtaining the patient’s consent for a procedure, mistakes in administering the anesthesia Propofol, failing to take Rivers’ weight, allowing an unauthorized doctor to perform a procedure at the facility and violating the patient’s privacy by taking a cell phone photograph during surgery.”

In response to the new report, Yorkville Endoscopy released the following statement to The Hollywood Reporter and other news outlets:

“From the outset of the Aug. 28 incident described in the CMS Report, Yorkville has been fully cooperative and collaborative with all regulatory and accreditation agencies. In response to the statement of deficiencies, Yorkville immediately submitted and implemented a plan of correction that addressed all issues raised. The regulatory agencies are currently reviewing the corrective plan of action and have been in regular contact with Yorkville. In addition, the physicians involved in the direct care and treatment referenced in the report no longer practice or provide services at Yorkville. Yorkville will continue its commitment to complying with all standards and accreditation requirements. Yorkville has been and remains open and active and is fully accredited by an independent review organization. The staff and providers are focused on providing the highest quality and most advanced care possible to its patients.”

Joan Rivers via David Shankbone

Their statement doesn’t convey even the barest amount of apology, express remorse, or say anything that makes me believe that they are patient-centric. Instead, it appears to be a self-interested statement intended to say as little as possible, limit legal damages, and convince regulators that they deserve to continue receiving Medicare money.

Yes, I understand that the practice has to be careful with impending litigation on the horizon, so it’s responsible for attorneys to play an important role in writing and vetting this statement (as they surely did). But does this statement really accomplish much? After reading such damning findings, I suspect most people would be outraged—her doctor took a selfie with Ms. Rivers as she was unconscious?!? Yorkville’s cold, carefully parsed statement doesn’t acknowledge that underlying emotion at all, making me wonder whether future potential patients would feel assured and safe enough to put their lives in Yorkville’s hands. I know I wouldn’t.

Then again, my guess is that Yorkville’s primary audience isn’t patients, but rather the regulators and accreditation agencies who will ultimately decide whether Medicare and other insurance patients can continue to receive coverage at their practice. 

Yorkville Endoscopy

Personally, I would have pushed for a more human-sounding statement such as this one:

“Patients place their trust in us, and we have a sacred obligation to uphold it. There was a breach in that trust recently, which we find completely unacceptable and took immediate action to correct. The physicians involved in the direct care and treatment referenced in the report no longer practice or provide services at Yorkville. 

Our sole focus is to make sure that every patient who walks through our doors knows they will be treated by expert physicians and cared for by professional healthcare workers. They should also know that the deficiencies that were identified by regulatory and accreditation agencies have been corrected.”

I know that the second line of that statement sounds like an admission of guilt. But other medical facilities, such as Johns Hopkins, have gone even further than I’m suggesting, offering affected patients a straightforward “I’m sorry.”

From my perspective, the facts seem rather self-evident here, meaning they would gain more from admitting the obvious in a quest to regain public trust than from fearing an increased payout by including such a line. (If Yorkville’s insurance carrier is preventing the clinic from making such a statement, it’s a good reminder to negotiate a policy that contains more flexibility for communications during a reputational crisis.)

If they weren’t willing to say more, should Yorkville Endoscopy have even released a statement at all? I’d say yes, if only because it prevented the media from saying the practice had “no comment,” which would have looked even more damning. Plus, I generally believe that some communication is better than no communication. But I sure wish they had left the generic legal “cover your ass” template behind and said something that inspired genuine confidence in their work instead.

 

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Joan Rivers photo credit: David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons

 


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The Apology Everyone Uses (And That May Not Work)

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 28, 2014 – 1:21 pm

Professional Golfers Association (PGA) President Ted Bishop was forced out of his job late last week after posting comments to his social media accounts that many people found sexist. On Facebook, he wrote the following to criticize a golfer:

“Used to be athletes who had lesser records or accomplishments in a sport never criticized the icons. Tom Watson (8 majors and a 10-3-1 Ryder Cup record) and Nick Faldo (6 majors and all-time Ryder Cup points leader) get bashed by Ian James Poulter. Really? Sounds like a little school girl squealing during recess.” 

He also tweeted the following:

Ted Bishop Tweet

As career-ending tweets go, that one might seem mild. But it’s important to place it into the larger context of women in golf, an exclusionary history the PGA has long been trying to improve upon.

Mr. Bishop, like many others in his situation, defended his record on women’s issues, arguing that his words weren’t representative of his true views (here’s his interview and apology on The Golf Channel). I’ve written before about that fashionable but increasingly non-credible apology—and questioned whether it can be possible for a person to refer derisively to men as “little school girls” without harboring at least some disrespect for girls.

That canned apology has become such a cliché that fictional television character Selena Meyer—who plays the Vice President of the United States on HBO’s Veep—has recorded this spot-on parody of it:

If an apology has become so hackneyed that it’s the stuff of parody, it’s probably a sign that it’s no longer as effective as it once was. That said, it still may be the best of a set of lousy options for many people in crisis—and, depending on the context, it may still work for some people. But they shouldn’t expect this type of apology to be a panacea that erases their statements and leads to immediate forgiveness.

Thanks to reader John Kelley for sending me the “Veep” video.

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An Invitation To Justine Sacco

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 3, 2014 – 4:02 am

Dear Ms. Sacco:

Along with many thousands of other people, I followed your story late last year after you sent an incendiary tweet that spread around the globe within a few hours.

As far as I can tell, you haven’t discussed the incident publicly since that time (with the exception of issuing an apology through a South African newspaper). Reports suggest that after volunteering in Ethiopia for a month, you’ve gotten another PR position with the website “Hot or Not.”

I’d like to offer you a forum for your first interview since the incident. I’m sure you’ve already been approached by dozens of news organizations, bloggers, and websites, but my interest in speaking to you is at least somewhat different from theirs.

Justine Sacco Tweet

Many of this blog’s readers are PR practitioners, and they’re interested in applying the lessons learned from your case to other clients. We’ve all observed the media dynamic that occurs after a major sex scandal (e.g. Monica Lewinsky, Fawn Hall), a racist tirade (e.g. Mel Gibson, Michael Richards), or unusual public behavior (e.g. Anthony Weiner, Rob Ford). Those cases are all different from yours, of course, but the same questions remain: What should you do now? How can you move on from such an incident? And most importantly, what have you learned from this experience that other people can benefit from?

I’m not offering a softball interview—I’d ask the questions that should be asked in any credible encounter that conforms to news standards. But I would promise you fairness. None of my questions would be gratuitous, I wouldn’t distort any of your quotes to make the story more salacious, and I won’t create a snarky title to generate more clicks. My post would be direct, honest, and fair to the story.

If you’d prefer, I’d also be willing to record and post the entire interview—which we could conduct in person (I’m in the New York area), via Skype, or by phone—so that viewers or listeners could judge your words in their full context, not through my edited version of our interview.

If you’d like to speak off the record to discuss the possibility of an on-the-record interview, you can contact me at Brad@PhillipsMediaRelations.com.

Thank you,

Brad Phillips

 


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Sorry, Mr. Whatever Your Name Is—You Weren’t Ambushed

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 29, 2014 – 5:02 am

Several years ago, I went on a date with a woman I had met on a dating website. She listed her age as 33—but after I had gone on several dates with her, she confessed to being 37.

I’m well aware of the sensitivities regarding age and understand the motivations behind someone lying about theirs. But I couldn’t get out of my mind that she had deceived me before we had even met and continued the lie for several dates—and for that reason (and not due to her actual age), I ended our brief relationship.

Voters in Laguna Beach, California must be feeling a similar sense of deception from Laguna Beach City Council candidate Jon Madison. According to the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot, Mr. Madison—if that’s his real name, which is also in doubt—“falsified his age, educational and work histories on his campaign website.”

Jon Madison

Mr. Madison had a rather interesting response to questions posed by the Coastline Pilot about his numerous biographical inconsistencies: 

“I am who I am,” Madison said in an interview after the forum. “I don’t think my educational history or my age or voter registration has anything to do with what I’m trying to do in this city.”

The Orange County Register reported Sunday that Madison may have lied on his campaign website about degrees he earned from two universities, in addition to apparent discrepancies in his birth date and work history….

“This is my first rodeo, and I’m disappointed that the media are bringing me down,” Madison said, adding that he is confused about why the six other council candidates are not receiving similar media attention. “I feel like I’m being ambushed. Come to my restaurant, even when I’m not there, and ask people what they think of me. They’ll tell you who I am.”

Jon Madison Means Business

 

What Could He Do Now?

To me, those unanswered allegations are disqualifying. But his case made me wonder what I would advise Mr. Madison to do if he asked me to take him on as a client (this is hypothetical; I’d respectfully turn down the work). 

Assuming these media reports are true, I’d advise Madison to do three things: Admit, apologize and ask forgiveness. I’d want to learn what forces led Mr. Madison to lie about his biography. If it was due to a normal human vulnerability—insecurity about his age or educational background, for example—I suspect some voters would be willing to overlook his past. But in order to do that, they would require complete honesty from this point on.

As an example, I could imagine him saying something like this:

“Media reports about my age and educational background are true. I didn’t complete the level of education I wish I had and always felt badly about that—so I made up a backstory about myself that allowed me to get through the day with a bit more pride. I’m sorry about that. Once I started telling those stories, it always felt like it was too late to come clean.

Over the past many years, I’ve met thousands of people at my restaurant—and they know the type of man I am. I’m asking people to look past the mistakes I’ve made in the past, make judgments about me based on the person they’ve gotten to know, and promise to always be truthful with voters as their public servant.”

Would that persuade me personally? No. But I suspect many people would appreciate that candor and give Madison a second look. Remember: Anthony Weiner briefly led in polls for the New York City mayor’s race last year, a sign that voters are often willing to overlook bad personal decisions.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

h/t Political Wire

 

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

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