“The Businessman and Greek Fisherman,” courtesy of Quora

It’s highly ironic that this takes place in Greece, but it’s a solid parable nonetheless. Shout-out to Arthur Kougias for posting this on Quora:

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A businessman took a short vacation to a small Greek coastal village. Unable to sleep he walked the pier.  A small boat with just one fisherman had docked and inside the boat were several large tuna.

“How long did it take you to catch them?” he asked.
“Only a little while” the Greek fisherman replied.
“Why don’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?” he asked.
“I have enough to support my family and give a few to friends,” the Greek fisherman said as he unloaded them into a basket.
“But …. What do you do with the rest of your time?”
The fisherman looked up and smiled” I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a nap with my wife and stroll into the village, where I sip wine and play guitar with my friends.”

The businessman laughed “Sir I am an MBA and can help you. You should fish more, and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat. In no time you could have several boats with the increase haul. Eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Then instead of selling your catch to the middleman, you could sell directly to the consumers. You could control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal village and move to the city to run your expanding empire.”
The fisherman asked “But, sir, how long will all this take?”
“15- 20 years, 25 tops” said the businessman.
“But what then?” asked the fisherman.

The businessman laughed and said “That’s the best part, when the time is right, you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions.”
“Millions? Then what?” asked the fisherman.

The businessman replied, “Then you could retire and move to a small coastal fishing village, where you could sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a nap with your wife, and stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play guitar with your friends.”

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The Emperor Wears No Clothes: Is Bit.ly the Enron of Social Media?

Update: Chris Michaels posted a blog about these issues on 10/12 – read: “How can Modern PR Avoid its Enron?” 

A while back, a hacker group virtually destroyed the reputation for a leading Sacramento-based cybersecurity firm, HBGary, by posting thousands of confidential, highly embarrassing documents to HBGary’s website and bitter sarcasm from the CEO’s public Twitter account. Hackers also publicly shamed the firm’s alleged clients, including the Department of Defense and National Security Agency.

Could this happen to anyone? Maybe. Viruses, hacks and phishing — not to mention hacker collectives doing it “for the lulz” — are perhaps the greatest threat to social media’s relevance in American business. Companies like Facebook and Google are well aware of this threat.

The other big threat: most people are wrong about their online influence. Our social media data is terrible, non-existent, or incorrect. This accountability failure is sweeping the entire social media marketing industry, which at this point can loosely be defined as every nonprofit, business and political campaign in the world.

Could bad math be destroying social media? The industry should pay attention.

The problem is simple: Bit.ly (perhaps the worst offender), Blogger, WordPress, Google Analytics, Google’s link shortener and much of the status quo produces wildly incorrect data (it’s been documented). You can independently verify this using paid analytics systems such as Google’s Urchin software. More on that below, but Google’s own Urchin software would probably contradict Google Analytics, if anyone can run that experiment. The data is probably wrong partially as a result of efforts to counter “click fraud” (fake ad traffic) and unsafe link traffic (viruses/hacks). In effect, social media’s biggest threat is feeding its other biggest threat.

Why should we care? (feel free to skip this section if you use social media)

Money, obviously. For example: Twitter is free to use, thus, your eyeballs are the product. Many of Twitter’s roughly 300+ million users share links, all day, every day, which translate to billions of page views that are converted into tens of millions of dollars. The math is depressing: great online content makes horrifically low revenues, which is why the news business has seen a lot of trouble in spite of great journalism. According to Newsonomics, 1,000 news site page views tended to make about $10 in ad revenue in 2010 (source). That’s low compared to print and broadcast (and a big answer to why private sector journalism is suffering), but it adds up: if 20 million Twitter users click a link, it might add up to $200,000 in ad revenue. It’s safe to assume that Twitter moves millions of dollars on a nonstop basis.

"Come see where all your money went."

But that’s just from an advertising perspective: considering pure influence, Twitter rules the world (after Facebook). The top stories on CNN.com tomorrow will be there partially because Twitter boosted their popularity. Voters across America are changing their opinions of a politician because of something his campaign staff posted to Twitter, which was then published in a top-tier, multi-million-circulation household-name media outlet. Even if you’re offline, off-air and anti-Internet, your opinions are probably influenced by people who read Twitter (read: the absolute majority of news and advertising executives in the world).

The reasoning is simple: 1,000 years ago, manuscripts changed leaders’ decision-making; in 1930, politicians got news from the radio and newspapers; in 1970, that plus TV; in 2002, Google; and in 2011, CIA analysts, TV producers, Pentagon communications staff, Egyptian revolutionaries and #OccupyWallSt folks all know it’s usually a lot easier to scan people’s 140-character summaries than it is to read a never-ending supply of content on every online channel available (as in, Twitter is easier to follow than the entire summary of the Internet, which is essentially the summary of public human knowledge). Twitter is not intuitive to a non-user — searching Obama-related tweets won’t tell you much — but to anyone who’s figured it out, Twitter is perhaps the most tailored, customized, real-time answer to a big chunk of your public information needs. That’s not to say Google+ and MySpace couldn’t do that, theoretically speaking, but both are probably lacking the user design capability and definitely lacking the critical mass to custom-stream the entirety of your mainstream public information needs.

Tying everything together here, if the assumptions below are accurate, Bit.ly is probably the single greatest threat to the social media marketing industry’s relevance. It’s the Enron of the social media industry, a black box that spits out bad numbers. Reporters and staff from The Wall Street Journal, ABC, NBC, CNN, FOX and The New York Times are all in on this. Even PR Newswire uses Bit.ly. Typically, anyone who’s anyone on the internet uses Bit.ly.

If these conclusions are right, Bit.ly is also dragging down the news business. If the internet is killing journalism, these news organizations should know their enemy.


Let’s be clear: it appears the majority of the world’s social media web analytics are flat-out wrong, unless you are a) using the minority of free, accurate sites like tiny.cc and tweetburner.com, or b) part of a major organization that has awesome, paid analytics systems (the kind that run $1,000+ monthly), and can’t be bothered with this. Here’s some evidence:

  • Bit.ly: Bit.ly is the top link shortener on social media, and thus the top analytics provider. According to Bit.ly, I’m impossibly more influential on Twitter — on a per-follower basis*** — than the New York Times, FOX News and CNN (no). In fact, according to Bit.ly, I’m more influential than Bit.ly (on Twitter, that is). Put a “+” symbol after any Bit.ly link to see its web traffic (see example from a Bit.ly tweet to 17,000 people). It’s wrong. I blogged about this in October 2010, and nothing has changed in the past year. Read what other people are saying here and here.
    • Bit.ly says The New York Times got a miserable 548 clicks for 3.8 million followers (safe assumption: $5 in ad revenue? Source for that claim): https://bitly.com/njiUYn+
    • The simplest way to prove Bit.ly is wrong: click the links yourself and watch how the numbers don’t change, even from different computers and different browsers (occasionally they do work – it’s hit or miss).
    • For the record, TechCrunch and the Huffington Post, among the rest of the top-tier, tend to reference Bit.ly as an accurate analytics provider. If everyone’s on the same page about Bit.ly, is there one single person to blame?
  • WordPress: also wrong. According to the analytics for this particular blog, I’ve only received about 700 visits to this blog since I launched it in May 2010. That verifiable undercount is very consistent with the other WordPress sites I’ve managed in the past, including official business sites hosted on WordPress. Logically, using a bit of “dumb math” (educated guessing), you can dismiss WordPress stats based on retweets alone. But you can track it. I’ve been tracking visits to this blog from my LinkedIn, and even if I disregard search engine and Twitter traffic, Tiny.cc, shows that this blog has received 1,960+ clicks from my personal LinkedIn profile in the last 8 months alone.  I’ve independently verified Tiny.cc in real-time using Google’s Urchin 6 software (Urchin is legit, unlike Google Analytics and Google’s link shortener). To summarize: see what WordPress measured in all time traffic (700+ clicks), versus Tiny.cc data (1,960+ from LinkedIn, not counting search engine and other social media traffic).
  • Blogger: You can verify this yourself. The stats are bogus. If you use Blogger (blogspot.com), you’re almost certainly getting a lot more web traffic than you might think. My evidence for this is primarily the ASU PRSSA blog, which never gave traffic numbers that matched tiny.cc statistics****. Read what other people are saying.
  • Google link shortener: Try this yourself – the links don’t register. Notice how this Tweet resulted in zero clicks, even when I repeatedly clicked it myself.

There’s no shortage of questionable data in our industry. I regularly track 30+ daily unique visits from my LinkedIn, while LinkedIn tells me my profile has been viewed by “10 people in the last 10 days.” On YouTube, I send hundreds of trackable unique visitors to videos only to see a modest increase in the video’s view count. These websites have the best talent, the best business models, and the best user bases: it’s hard to believe they take analytics seriously (the analytics we can see anyway).

Moving forward

It’s odd that this isn’t getting attention. In my conversations over the last year with advertising and public relations executives, journalists, marketers and industry colleagues from coast to coast, no one has disagreed with these conclusions when shown the data firsthand. (I’d love to hear what Bit.ly — perhaps the most significant offender — has to say.) For background, I had the opportunity to review the official Bit.ly account of a national, top-tier media outlet. The statistics were so low that they would suggest the site gets less than half of its verified web traffic.

I’ve also sat down with social media managers and shown them a lot of this data, and again, no one has disagreed with these conclusions. It’s not clear why this is such an unnoticed problem, but it would be ideal for three things to happen:

1)      Make the switch: If you manage social media for a client or even just a personal blog, consider making the switch to tiny.cc for all shortened links. Tiny.cc’s data is as bulletproof as it gets (at least according to Google’s Urchin 6, and to a lesser extent GoDaddy.com’s site analytics, which can be used to independently verify). Tweetburner.com is another great link-shortening alternative.

2)      Explain: All the sites mentioned above — WordPress included — should be inclined to better explain where their analytics are coming from and why the traffic undercount is so enormous.

3)      Manage expectations: The greater social media universe needs to recognize that it takes a lot of web traffic to make anything happen. Votes, sales, job leads, and yes, legitimate blog exposure — all these things need way more traffic than you might expect to move the needle. It appears all this undercounting has convinced the CMOs of America that low social media web traffic means big results. A big thank you to Bit.ly in particular for helping to inflate the social media bubble.

** I asked Bit.ly how one of their links posted to 17,000+ people could only receive 5 clicks. They didn’t respond and appeared to delete the specific link I was referring to. What does it look like when your tweet is exposed to 10,000+ followers? Here’s an example: A blog I wrote in January 2010 criticized Hooman Karamian, the founder of a popular gossip site. Karamian retweeted my link – this was one of the few times that Bit.ly appeared to work properly.

The tweet (at the time, this went out to 10,000+ Twitter followers):

The stats for that Bit.ly link:

You can read the original article here.

*** My tweets usually get 30-60 unique clicks, or perhaps 80+ if it mentions Justin Bieber. For a back-of-the-envelope, apples-to-oranges comparison, I can comfortably assume I get one unique visit for every 100 followers. Bit.ly says here The New York Times got 1 click for approximately every 2,000+ followers. Here, Bit.ly tell us The New York Times got 1 click for every 7,000+ followers. Unless the NYT is sharing Twitter followers with Newt Gingrich, these figures are all but impossible.

****Tiny.cc is a primary piece of evidence for why Blogger, Bit.ly, WordPress and Google Analytics give incorrect data. But you can do the math yourself if you consider how many clicks you usually get on Twitter versus what WordPress is telling you. All these sites would have you believe it’s normal to get 5-20 clicks from a tweet to 17,000 non-spam Twitter followers. Try it: add a “+” after this Bit.ly link.

Update 10/11/2011: Bit.ly probably used to be very reliable, as recently as 2009 – see here.


Note: Nothing here represents the views of my employer. To the best of my knowledge, this post is independent of my clients and direct client competitors. Read my philosophy on full disclosure from last October.  Please contact me with questions/comments.


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The Economist burns the entire PR industry. Hmmm…

Originally posted on Dec. 22, 2010 on the Olson Communications company blog. Republished with permission. See original post here, and follow Olson Communication on Twitter: @olson_comm

Quick: What’s the most respected publication in the world? Probably The Economist. In an article published last week, The Economist referenced public relations as “the dark arts” and gave one of the most excruciating critiques of the industry I’ve read. Man, who needs PR?

Sidenote: Does The Economist have a public relations team? Click here to contact them. (Also: Want to work on their PR team? Check out seven LinkedIn profiles of The Economist’s PR people to see how your resume stacks up.)

The article gives credit to the public relations industry for its meteoric rise and enormous relevance in 21st century business, adding that PR’s size and global reach is perhaps excessive.

Many of The Economist’s most damning critiques of PR come from historical examples of “reputation laundering” for tyrannical governments and corrupt businesses — without mentioning anything good, you know, like all the PR campaigns that have reduced global hunger, American obesity, HIV, poverty, etc. They paint a pretty arguably inaccurate portrait, as PRSA noted in its rebuttal, of PR as the selfish little sibling of advertising and marketing.

Nevertheless, and despite any of my criticisms, this article is worth reading for anyone interested in the industry. But first, a few points:

1) Anecdotes need context. The article excellently catalogues some of the PR industry’s most shameful moments, while implying that historical examples of bad behavior by PR professionals sum up the entire industry. Sure, these examples are relevant. But we could play that game all day writing at length about the misbehavior of babysitters, police officers, schoolteachers, lawyers, firefighters, soldiers… and journalists. Obviously, all those people play vital, irreplaceable roles in society. Just like PR folks.

2) We all need PR. No business, government, newspaper, church, nonprofit or public figure could ever survive this planet, let alone the news cycle, without public relations. Duh! Even polite conversations, Facebook profiles, job interviews and first dates require niceties that are arguably forms of PR. Public relations is, of course, all about relationship management.

3) PR is essential to democracy. We’re in the free market of ideas, and everyone should be able to compete – even those who don’t believe in the free market of ideas. The Economist generally supports free and fair markets. To its credit, the article does note that PR is, for the most part, a gigantic free and fair market: Greenpeace can compete with Exxon Mobil all it wants, and even a ticked-off consumer can throw a viral YouTube video at a big corporation. No, not everyone can necessarily afford a top PR firm, just like not everyone can afford top lawyers, accountants or private security. What can I say? It happens.

I like PRSA’s response to the article as well, though I’m not sure I agree with their claim that The Economist is insulting women:


What do you think? Comment or Tweet me: @mattculbertson

By the way, you may enjoy this Mac vs. PC style video of journalism vs. PR.

Editor’s note: Matt Culbertson is an intern at Olson Communications. This entry is his swan song on our blog. His perspective will be missed as he goes from this place! A big, heartfelt thanks to Matt for his contributions to our agency.

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Top 5 social media theories

Originally posted on Nov. 5, 2010 on the Olson Communications company blog. Republished with permission. See original post here, and follow Olson Communication on Twitter: @olson_comm

Approximately 100 percent* of people on Twitter are “social media experts.” Want proof? Click here.

With so much expertise to go around, I’ve modestly compiled the top 5 schools of thought about social media.

1) Social media is a fad/overrated. This view is espoused by my old college roommate, and Malcolm Gladwell, who convincingly wrote in The New Yorker why “The revolution will not be tweeted.” Gladwell’s argument, in a nutshell, says that social media makes it easy for people to participate in a movement, so they participate in higher numbers — but that participation doesn’t necessarily equate to real change or real money. One of Gladwell’s strongest points was that the much-publicized hype about Twitter improving Iranian democracy amounted to bogus-ness (how could English tweets help Iranian elections when the language there is Farsi?).  Maybe Gladwell has a point about social media and political participation. But for the business side of social media, here’s the much-Tweeted “34 case studies that prove social media ROI.”

2) Social media is going to improve corporate and government transparency. Thanks to the wide-ranging conversation taking place all over the place, this theory says it’s going to be difficult — if not impossible — for companies, agencies and personalities to hide all their dirty laundry. The news will spread much easier on social networks. Here’s a source for the government side of that claim. To be fair and balanced here, Frank Rich of the New York Times thinks this is garbage.

3) Social media is going to make partying job-friendly. The bottom line is that our personal lives are more public than ever before – so theoretically, a future American president or Fortune 500 CEO could be tagged somewhere on Facebook right now doing a kegstand or pulling a Michael Phelps, right? For now, that kind of documented behavior could get you fired. There’s the line of thought that as this generation hits the workforce, hiring managers and the general public will grow numb to this kind of behavior.

4) Social media is going to simultaneously render standard PR and journalism obsolete. This theory is a cross between logical thinking and Chicken Little’s claim that the sky is falling, all because social media is such a revolutionary shift from conventional communication. Obviously, social media changes the game for PR and journalism. Bottom line: social media is a great tool in the toolbox, but standard rules apply.

5) Social media is going to make us all rich. There are two big schools of thought for this one. No. 1 is that we’ll figure out exactly what works in social media, and it will stop sounding like alchemy. Think tech giant Cisco saving $100,000 on a product launch using social media (let’s just do that all the time!). No. 2 is that yes, social media makes companies profitable, and it’s a necessity – but no one knows how or why because it’s so hard to track, even if everyone has a theory. In the mean time, one global survey says 35 percent of American businesses have used social media to win new business,


Editor’s note: Matt Culbertson is an intern at Olson Communications. Follow him on Twitter: @mattculbertson

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In Focus: NY Times finds embarrassing government hypocrisy. With cheese.

Originally posted on Nov. 10, 2010 on the Olson Communications company blog. Republished with permission. See original post here, and follow Olson Communication on Twitter: @olson_comm

On Saturday, The New York Times published a great where-are-your-tax-dollars-going story: a USDA-created nonprofit has been heavily pushing obesity-causing cheese sales, even as the USDA is combating obesity.

In a nutshell: the United States Department of Agriculture has been tasked with combating obesity in the U.S. About two-thirds of America is overweight or obese, and heart disease is the No. 1 killer of Americans. But while the USDA carried on the good fight against poor American diets, one of its creations – the nonprofit marketing/communications group Dairy Management – pushed the sales of cheese to Americans through extensive (and successful) marketing campaigns.

Cheese is linked to heart disease and obesity, The New York Times article notes. And Dairy Management’s cheese-pushing annual budget “approaches $140 million,” according to the article.

Dairy Management, by the way, is behind the Got Milk? campaign. These guys are good. The article suggests Dairy Management helped develop and market a new line of pizzas for Domino’s Pizza with 40 percent more cheese, then came up with and paid for a $12 million marketing campaign to sell those pizzas.

One of my favorite parts of reading a story like this is imagining how the story got into the press. Did the New York Times reporter stumble across this while following the money? Did a disgruntled dairy researcher leak this? Was the reporter just Googling “Got Milk?” one day and found an article that led to a phone call? Did an original source for this story have an axe to grind? Maybe it went down like this:

The reporter for this story, by the way, was Michael Moss, who’s been an investigative reporter with the Times for 10 years and won the Pulitzer Prize this year for reporting on food safety.

A few points from this story:

  • American cows give about 60 million gallons of milk daily, yet less than a third of that goes toward making milk that people drink.
  • Dairy Management enlisted researchers to help prove theories that consuming dairy products help weight loss and weren’t pleased with the research because it found no evidence. They threatened to audit the work.
  • USDA data show cheese is a big reason the American diet contains too much saturated fat.

There’s a final perspective to consider here: yes, this appears to be a massive conflict-of-interest by the USDA (which does plenty of useful things, obviously).  But on the flip-side of the government-never-works ideology, the USDA was enormously effective at creating a nonprofit organization to sell all that excess cheese and dairy. There was plenty of efficient, public-sector talent put to inappropriate use – but hey, the public sector is at least fully capable of getting a job done. Ask not what your country…

Editor’s note: Matt Culbertson is an intern at Olson Communications. Follow him on Twitter: @mattculbertson

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Reporters like full disclosure. Do you?

Originally posted on Oct. 30, 2010 on the Olson Communications company blog. Republished with permission. See original post here, and follow Olson Communication on Twitter: @olson_comm

FULL DISCLOSURE: I don’t yet have a degree and am technically under-qualified to advise your PR strategies.

When I was the business reporter for The State Press, one of the most cringe-worthy pitches I ever received from a PR professional included this at the end of the e-mail:

In the interest of transparency, I will say that I represent <client>…

First thought: thanks for letting me know! Are there times when you wouldn’t say who you were representing?*

For reporters, a good pitch contains something of value, and valuable information usually doesn’t come with hidden conflicts of interest. When I reported a story about a large-scale proposal to demolish and rebuild ASU fraternity housing – and the subsequent possibility of eminent domain being declared – it was important to me to know where my sources stood and what their motivations were for talking to me. My best stories involved interviewing people I could trust – and people who owned up to their perspective and stake in the issue.

As someone who has been on the receiving end of hundreds of pitches and story ideas over two years as an intern reporter and student journalist, it always made me more comfortable to know who was behind what before I considered pursuing a story idea. For my fellow journos, it was the same. Most of the time, such root information was revealed in the form of one phrase in an e-mail that said “our client, <client>, is doing this newsworthy thing that…” At that point, the e-mail had succeeded in managing expectations.

Sometimes it can be a bit more complicated, and the Public Relations Society of America’s code of ethics offers general guidelines to help, including:

–          Reveal sponsors for represented causes and interests.

–          Disclose financial interests in a client’s organization.

–          Avoid conflicts between personal and professional interests.

Highly decorated retired USAF Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney received harsh criticism for failing to disclose conflicts of interests as a Fox News Analyst and Wall Street Journal guest writer. For more: http://www.pulitzer.org/archives/8338

At the end of the day, good disclosure is good business. The media will probably figure out if there’s an apparent conflict of interest, and they’re probably more likely to listen if they know where you’re coming from at the outset. So the winning strategy for building relationships? Disclose.

For an incredible story about what can happen when conflicts of interests aren’t disclosed in the media, check out this Pulitzer-Prize-winning New York Times article. Of course, there are a lot more players to blame in that story than just the PR people.

*That was just my first reaction.

Editor’s note: Matt Culbertson is an intern at Olson Communications. Follow him on Twitter: @mattculbertson

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LinkedIn makes the world smaller. Are you connected to Russian spies?

Originally posted on Oct. 22, 2010 on the Olson Communications company blog. Republished with permission. See original post here, and follow Olson Communication on Twitter: @olson_comm

Every Facebook user gets a kick out of the “mutual friends” feature – it’s pretty cool  to see that one of your college buddies knows someone from work. The professional networking site LinkedIn takes this a step further: degrees of separation! LinkedIn actually tells you if you know someone who knows someone who knows someone.

The professional use of this feature is obvious — it’s almost always helpful to know what contacts you have in common with business associates. Besides, “they say” the Phoenix-area business community has a big-city-small-town feel to it.

But aside from the business application, LinkedIn often shrinks our world to the size of a playground.

For instance:  This summer, in a truly patriotic fashion, the FBI busted a Russian spy ring*. Those spies lived normal lives and were, at least on the surface, legitimate businesspeople living in the U.S. So naturally, I stalked them on LinkedIn. Turns out we’re connected!

I’m three degrees of separation away from Anna Chapman, the so-called “Russian Femme Fatale.” I know two people who know people who allegedly know Chapman, LinkedIn tells me. Check out her profile and see if you have anyone in common. You can try this for another Russian spy as well.

Fun stuff, huh? Next time you see someone interesting in the news, see if you know anyone in common. Unfortunately, Barack Obama has not accepted my invitation to connect on LinkedIn**. But, LinkedIn says I do know 187 people who know people who allegedly know Barack Obama.

If you’re not on LinkedIn, we highly recommend getting on board. Not only is it free and often very useful, it has a habit of quickly becoming the first result on a Google search for your name. It’s free search engine optimization for your resume and your business!

*According to everything I’ve read, the spies were embarassingly unsuccessful at finding out anything of value, and the feds deserve props for building a bulletproof case against them. Go America!

**One of the few times I’ve ever asked to connect with someone I don’t know.

Editor’s note: Matt Culbertson is an intern at Olson Communications. Follow him on Twitter: @mattculbertson

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