5 Steps to Create a Crisis Communications Plan NOWIn a world of social media and cancel culture, creating a crisis communication plan is something every business owner needs to do – whether you’re a team of 1 or 100. We talk about how you know something is a crisis, what do have in place NOW before it hits the fan, and the five As in handling it all with poise.
5 Things to Do to Prepare for a Crisis
- Create a playbook with all the information needed, like contacts, links, etc.
- Name a crisis manager to take the lead.
- Explore scenarios on what could happen.
- Create a crisis matrix based on low, medium, and high tiers.
- Getting the facts shared fast is most important, but have a holding statement in the meantime.
5 Things to Do When Handling a Crisis
- Asses: Figure out what happened by gathering the facts.
- Acknowledge: This is not admitting wrongdoing, but recognizing the impact is vital.
- Apologize: Include 1-3 points to be succinct and make it easy to remember. Transparency is the most important thing to show.
- Activate: Make a declaration and share how you will share how things will change in the future.
- Adjust: Put your money where your mouth is.
Christina Nicholson [00:00:00]:
I talk about everything media, marketing and PR on this podcast and I have for a few years now. But one thing I have not touched on until today is crisis communications. And you’ll hear why I really always just said, oh, these are for the bigger guys. These aren’t for the little guys like ah, wrong. It is for the little guys like you and me. So you are to love this episode.
We talk about Kim Kardashian. We talk about Ashton Kutcher. Mila Kunis Who else? Drew Barrymore. Oh, and Raquel from Vanderpump Rules. We are talking about it all because for some reason people are not getting crisis communications correct nowadays. We are going to dig into specific examples that you know of why they’re getting it wrong, how they’re getting it wrong, and how you can prepare for a crisis. Like there are things that you can do right now. I want you to put time in your calendar this week to do these five things to prepare for a crisis.
And then when something happens, Linda from MuckRack is going to share five A’s – the five things you need to do to handle a crisis. And it’s so simple but brilliant that I am like kicking myself for not even discussing crisis communications sooner on the Become a Media Maven podcast.
As you know, everything that we talk about here, you can find in the show notes, just go to Becomeamediamaven.com. That’s also where you can subscribe to the podcast and that is also where you can leave a rating or review. You can do that in Apple or Spotify would love you to do. So we’ll shout you out. We’ll share what you are talking about here on the podcast. So please do so if you have not already.
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And here we go. This is more on crisis communication from Linda Zebian at Muck Rack.
So before recording this episode, I was one of those people who did not have a communications plan. And I’m hoping at the end of this I will. And this is why I have always assumed that crisis communications and planning for it was something for those bigger businesses.
But in a world of social media where one thoughtless tweet could totally derail everything you’ve worked for it’s not really like that anymore.
So can you explain the mindset behind this? Because a lot of my listeners are solopreneurs. They have a small team, if they have a team at all, and they’re probably like me with no crisis communications plan.
Linda Zebian [00:03:18]:
Right, well, I think we live in a world where crisis is daily, right. Crisis happen all the time. Because like your said, social media gives every consumer a voice and a platform to disseminate information. So even an opinion, a point of view from a customer or an audience, someone in your audience can get out there and if it’s negative, it’s going to impact your brand, whether big or small. And I think the reality is that people are looking to associate themselves with and kind of share identity with brands they can trust and brands that align with their values and their beliefs. And so if you’re a brand, it makes it much harder to ensure that you’re avoiding a crisis as much as possible.
Christina Nicholson [00:04:20]:
Yeah, that makes sense. And I’ve seen that, like to use Hobby Lobby as an example, they are very religious, they don’t give their employees birth control, like things like that. And I have seen a lot of people say, oh, I won’t shop at Hobby Lobby because of this and that’s maybe not a crisis communications thing. That’s more, like you said, the point of view that could impact your brand. So tell me when something is actually considered a crisis, because I think anybody who’s active on social media, like I’m one who has no filter, I will say whatever, anytime and people will come for me on social, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a crisis. So when do you consider something like, oh, we just have some people disagreeing with a post to, oh, maybe this is something that is going to actually impact my business on a larger scale instead of just losing one customer here or yeah, definitely.
Linda Zebian [00:05:15]:
So I’ve written about this for the MuckRack blog. I think the question you ask yourself is, does this have the potential to significantly impact our brand reputation long term? And if the answer is yes, you’re in a crisis. And the answer could be at first, no, or maybe you still have to watch it. It could still turn into a crisis quite easily, actually. So that’s kind of the gold standard in my opinion.
Christina Nicholson [00:05:48]:
Okay, that makes sense. And it can turn into a crisis easily. Because we’ve seen how quick things can spread on social media and that can be scary for anybody, even a super small business owner or a solopreneur. Like I said, and I’ve always been of the mindset and this is where you’re going to change my mind in this episode. Why not just wait till something happens to develop a crisis communication plan? Because we could be like, oh, well, I don’t even know how to respond because this thing hasn’t happened yet. So tell us how we can prepare now. And I know you have something called the Five A’s that you can get into, but I want you to share some key elements, something that I can go and open up a Google folder and start having a plan, some key elements for crisis communications before anything happens. Like break it all down.
Linda Zebian [00:06:43]:
Yeah, definitely. So, yes, there is what you can do to prepare for a crisis and then what I call the Five A’s or what you do when you’re facing a crisis. So in terms of creating for a crisis, there are absolutely things you can do. The first is create some kind of playbook to prepare you. If it’s just you still need a playbook. If it’s you and your team, all the more reason to have a playbook. And the bigger the team, the more I think a playbook is needed in terms of organization and getting everybody on the same page when time is of the essence, because that’s the biggest thing in a crisis. Your biggest enemy is time.
Linda Zebian [00:07:25]:
So if you’re in a larger organization, you need to create a working group, right? You need to know who’s going to be involved in the crisis process, the decision process. You need to know where you’re going to meet and how you’re going to meet. If everyone’s kind of scattered around you and you’re a remote or digital company, what zoom link are you going to use? Are you going to use a certain Slack channel? If you’re on Slack, what’s everybody’s cell phone number? How do I text my lawyer? Right? Do you have all your ducks in a row? And you can put all that stuff in one place? Folder, document, Excel, sheet, whatever you use so that when you’re super stressed and you’re not sure how to handle the crisis, everything is there for you. So you don’t have to spend time searching around or gathering people or trying to find somebody’s cell phone number because they’re on vacation, say. So that’s the first thing. And then you want to name somebody too, like a crisis project manager that will direct all the traffic. It could just be you, right? But if you have more than one person or you’re involved, say, with you have an investor or you are involved in another organization, when do you bring those people in? And who’s running point on that? Because even though who from your client, if you’re a solo practitioner, how high do you go? How low do you go in terms of the hierarchy of your client’s business? So then what you want to do is you want to definitely explore possible scenarios, what could happen that could be a crisis for my business or my client’s business, right. And some people say scenarios are silly because you can never predict what’s going to happen.
Linda Zebian [00:09:11]:
But I think if you know your business well enough, you might know you might be able to predict what could happen. Somebody could get injured on your property. An employee could go say something on social that’s uncomfortable. You might be able to see that something might happen. Something might happen when you’re afraid it’s going to leak out. Right. You’re just kind of hanging onto it until you’re waiting until something might happen. You could have a security breach.
Linda Zebian [00:09:39]:
There’s all sorts of things that could happen. So again, does this have the potential to significantly impact our brand reputation long term? If yes, take action. If no, we watch and wait. Or you can arrange you can create kind of like a crisis matrix where you bucket your crises. So it could be based on severity level low, medium, high, and then you can figure out what to do in those kinds of scenarios. And I do think that it is helpful. And then I think the key to it all is that facts to speed ratio. So getting the facts straight is the most important part.
Linda Zebian [00:10:21]:
But the hardest part is balancing that fact finding phase with the time that passes. Right. So the longer you wait, the more heated an issue can become, the more upset your audiences can be. That could be your employees, that can be the public. Everyone’s kind of waiting around for you to say something. However, my motto is, when in doubt, move slower and get it right. Because you do not want to have to course correct. So the other thing you can do is release a holding statement.
Linda Zebian [00:10:54]:
Right? You’re in the fact finding process. You’re really not sure what happened, but everybody’s waiting for you to say something. And a holding statement can work with your employees, it can work with the public. Right. You just say it’s kind of just like a, hey, we’re acknowledging this is happening. We’re looking into it and we’ll be back. Right? Just stay tuned. That will save you some time to go and find your facts.
Christina Nicholson [00:11:20]:
That is genius. And you know what that makes me think of? This was probably a year ago, kim Kardashian teamed up with some designer. I don’t remember which one it was, maybe Balenciaga. And they got in trouble for some things that were in the background of pictures. And she’s obviously not part of the set design. She was the model. But because we all know who she is, people were coming for her. Like, how could you work for people who are putting this child pornography paraphernalia in these sets? And she did not say anything for the longest time, and people were coming for her because she didn’t say anything.
Christina Nicholson [00:12:00]:
And then when she finally said something, she said that she wasn’t saying anything because she was gathering all of the information so she could know how to respond. And more people were upset that she just took so long to say anything. So this speaks to that point 100% exactly.
Linda Zebian [00:12:19]:
Yeah. So all she had to probably do. And they would come for her regardless if I was her publicist, which is hilarious. But anyway, if I was her publicist, I’d say, listen, let’s just put something out there. Let’s just say, oh, my gosh, this is shocking information. I’m going to go back to my team and figure out what happened. I’ll let you guys know. Simple.
Christina Nicholson [00:12:41]:
Yeah, that would have made a huge difference.
Linda Zebian [00:12:43]:
Yeah, I agree.
Christina Nicholson [00:12:45]:
And that’s the holding statement that you’re talking about.
Linda Zebian [00:12:47]:
Christina Nicholson [00:12:48]:
Okay, so now I have a lot of things I need to do to prepare. Now let’s go into the five A’s, which is how to handle something when it happens. And again, it could be something that you don’t do, but something you’re associated with, like the Kim Kardashian example. Or you could have an independent contractor or a VA who goes out and says some crazy things on the Internet, and you are guilty by association. And we’ve seen that happen so much. So if this happens, what do we do?
Linda Zebian [00:13:23]:
When I think of crisis, I think of these five A’s, and they are assess, acknowledge, apologize, activate, and adjust. And if you think of them all together, they actually work really well together. And then this is for when you were prepared. You’ve got all your stuff, your scenarios, your working groups in place. You get everybody’s number. You know what to do. Okay, so if crisis comes your way, so you start with the assessed phase, which is that moment where you’re like, I need to figure out what happened. So you’re gathering the facts.
Linda Zebian [00:14:01]:
This takes time, and you may not be able to get the information up front in time before you move to the second phase, which is acknowledge. So acknowledgment of what happened is not admittance. And I think that people need to remember that. Listen, we work in PR. We work with big personalities, right? Reputation is everything for these gigantic companies. But it can be as simple as this holding statement, right? We are aware this happened, and we’re looking into it. And you can also recognize the impact, right? Like, we are aware this happened. We understand this is painful news to hear, right? And we’re looking into it.
Linda Zebian [00:14:44]:
Just acknowledge people’s feelings, whether it’s pain, it’s fear, it’s outraged, whatever it is, that’s helpful. People just want to be acknowledged and heard, right? So that’s your holding statement. So during that acknowledgment phase, you can buy more time for the next three phases, which are assess, apologize, and activate. So I would say in this phase, this acknowledge phase, you should not respond to any media queries. No one should be talking to the press. This is time for either put the holding statement out on social, or you can just blast the holding statement out to a couple of your friendly reporters or people who are following your business closely, and then people will pick up their stories, right?
Christina Nicholson [00:15:32]:
And something I like about this is that it’s a holding statement that actually says something. It’s not a no comment, because to me, no comment. When people hear that, they’re like, oh, you’re guilty. That’s what I think. And I was a reporter for so many years, and I’m in PR, and whenever I hear no comment, it has a negative connotation. So the holding statement is so much better.
Linda Zebian [00:15:54]:
Yeah, let’s all be humans is my theory. We’re all humans. PR people are humans. Journalists are humans. The public, we’re humanity. No comment is cold. Right? It can tend to be cold. There are situations where I do think no comment is appropriate, or like, I can’t speak to that right now.
Linda Zebian [00:16:16]:
Right. And I think if you’re caught in a situation where you can’t even verify that there’s been a problem yet, you know what I mean? You haven’t even assessed at all. Right. If you’ve assessed and you’ve got some information, then I think your can prepare a holding statement. Moving on to apologize. If the assessed process does discover faults by your organization, like a basic apology is so key to Brad rescue. It goes back to the playground. Right.
Linda Zebian [00:16:59]:
Just apologize to your sister, and your sister will be okay. Right. And it’s not always easy to convince leadership, like a board, for example, that an apology is the best route. But I do think that simple is better. And empathy again and humility actually increase brand affinity. Right. If you’re going to be a hardliner, people might be a little turned off, but if you can show that again that you made a mistake or something happened, it was out of your control, just apologize. You can use your own media.
Linda Zebian [00:17:39]:
You can use social media. You can use earned media to communicate. Just make sure that that message is consistent across the board. And then I think in the apologize phase is when you also begin to respond to media inquiries. And in terms of what you say, I think it should be like, between one and three points. Right. We talk about especially for broadcasts like easy to remember snackable sound bites. So I think three max is the easiest for your spokesperson to remember.
Linda Zebian [00:18:11]:
It’s easiest for the journalist to engage in, and it’s easy for the public to remember.
Christina Nicholson [00:18:18]:
Okay, I like that. That’s good. And I feel like also apologizing, like going back to the Kim Kardashian example, kim didn’t do anything wrong. She was just her and everybody came after her. What would her apology be? Because she really didn’t do anything wrong. I feel like there’s so much trickiness and guilt. There’s so much guilty by association situations happening.
Linda Zebian [00:18:47]:
Yeah. Now, I agree. You could say, I’m so sorry that I was involved in such a campaign, even though I had no idea, I had no idea this was going on or this was going to be Photoshopped in or whatever the situation was. I don’t know if the child pornography thing was on set with her, or they put it in later, but I just think transparency, right? If I had known, I would just never have done that. And I’m so sorry for any pain this may have caused any everybody, and I would never want my fans or anyone to feel like I would condone this kind of thing.
Christina Nicholson [00:19:31]:
Yeah. And I feel like the key thing you said there was transparency, because I feel like and this is also where I believe smaller businesses have a better advantage than the bigger ones, because the bigger ones, they have lawyers and they’ve got too many chefs in the kitchen, and it takes forever for them to get anything out. And they are very apt to second guess what they’re going to put out there when if you’re a one man show, you can be as transparent as you want to be. And the more transparent, the better. You don’t have to answer to a lot of people when it comes to sharing. Like, listen, this is what really happened, and giving people a behind the scenes. And I think a lot of people in the public appreciate that a lot better.
Linda Zebian [00:20:15]:
Yeah. And I think the public is getting real smart about knowing how these kinds of things work. Right. We’ve all watched succession. We know what a cover up is, and we know when an organization is being transparent. And I think that also kind of leads us into the activate phase. Right. So in the activate phase, you make a move, right.
Linda Zebian [00:20:39]:
Or you make a declaration for how you’re going to fix what happened or how to prevent it from happening again. So we deeply regret our products were the cause of this food poisoning outbreak. We’re so sorry that our customers got ill from our ice cream. Right. And then you quickly follow it up with an activation statement, like, we’re launching an investigation into our sanitation process and our freezers to ensure we approach food safety with the highest that’s what people want to hear. I’ve got food poisoning. What are you going to do about it, dude? They want people to have their tail between their legs and say, listen, we’re going to look into this so that it never, ever happens again. If you don’t do that, no one’s going to go to your ice cream store.
Linda Zebian [00:21:22]:
You know what I mean? You’ve got to do that not just to appease your customer and the public, but to save your business.
Christina Nicholson [00:21:29]:
Yeah. And I think we saw Drew Barrymore recently do this. She was going to start production and then you have the SAG mean, everybody loves Drew Barrymore. Like, she is the cutest, sweetest thing ever. And I think she was just trying to help, but she realized that by trying to help, it was having a bad effect. And then she released that video on Social. Everybody lost their marbles. And then she deleted it and took it back, and then she said why she took it back.
Christina Nicholson [00:22:01]:
That was a PR mess. And you can tell she didn’t have PR guidance. And she even said that in the video. And a lot of people in the industry were like, well, that’s why we’re here. We would help you prevent any of that from happening. But she did eventually activate, and she made her declaration, which was, okay, I take it all back, and this is why. And she’s a very transparent person, just in general. And I felt like her apology was well received because of how transparent she was and why she did it and why she was changing her mind.
Christina Nicholson [00:22:37]:
In my opinion. Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunes. Right now, not so much. Right?
Linda Zebian [00:22:42]:
Because it didn’t feel genuine for them. And I think for Drew, it’s so classic, right? People, either out of ignorance or ego, think that they don’t need counsel from a PR person, right. They’ll go to a lawyer for counsel, but they’re like, oh, I can do this. This is just like communication. This is just like relationships and people. I’m a great people person. I can do this. People like me.
Linda Zebian [00:23:09]:
I’m confident in my choices. No, man, we live, sleep, eat, breathe the media, right? We understand. We can spot landmines. We can look around corners that you don’t see because you’re looking at other things, and that’s cool. You’re really good at running a company, but you’re not really good at preventing a crisis. That’s what I’m here for. So don’t bring me in to clean up your now. Get me early.
Linda Zebian [00:23:36]:
Let’s build a relationship so close. Like for Drew, she should have such a close relationship with her publicist, but she’s probably never faced an issue before because she’s so lovely and delightful. But even for the most lovely and delightful, you can get in hot water. So get that relationship going so that they can be in your head a little bit and you guys can be on the same page at all times. Bear for something like this so that you’re not, like, going rogue on social. Social is amazing. It’s such a tool for celebrities and stuff, right. They have this great platform, but it also can really hurt them when they’re making a video in their bathroom, crying without any oversight from their PR person.
Linda Zebian [00:24:17]:
And it’s not about covering things up or blessing things up or spinning it. It’s just, how can we make this better? How could this be perceived? Because you may not see yourself the way the public might see it. So that’s all. It’s just like thoughtful counsel.
Christina Nicholson [00:24:36]:
Yeah. I love that. And then the last A is adjust. And I assume this is where we put the activation into play, and we see the adjustment of what we said in that activation.
Linda Zebian [00:24:47]:
Exactly. It’s put your money where your mouth is. Make that activation happen. I think a lot of companies might drag their feet on it, obviously, because it wasn’t a priority before the crisis, and it may not still be a priority, but you can bet your bottom dollar that your customers, the media, they will check in on you. They want to know. They want the data. They want to see it, and they want to make sure that you’re honest and delivering on your promises. And I think the other part of the adjust phase is analyzing how your crisis response went.
Linda Zebian [00:25:17]:
Right? What went well, what didn’t, what actions need to be taken to prepare for the next one.
Christina Nicholson [00:25:23]:
I love that, and I agree. I feel like we miss the adjust phase for a couple of reasons when we’re just like viewing a crisis. One, we miss it because the drama is more engaging, and that’s what we pay more attention to. And two, we miss it because I feel like a lot of brands don’t really adjust. They do steps one through four, and they don’t follow up on five because they think nobody’s looking.
Linda Zebian [00:25:54]:
Exactly. But people are looking. Your employees, number one, are looking. Number two, the media is looking. And number three, your customer is looking. So you got three important. And then if you have investors, do you have a board? Those are two other gigantic influences on the health and the future of your organization. So it’s really important that working group, that manager of the crisis, sees it through.
Linda Zebian [00:26:31]:
And as a PR pro, our job is to really get leadership and executives to understand how important brand reputation is. Regardless if you are a corner store or a giant conglomerate, it runs the gamut. Reputation from the local level to the global level is still really important to the health and future of your business.
Christina Nicholson [00:26:57]:
And on that fifth point, too, now we have SEO. So when people search your name, your company name, whatever, are they going to see the scandal, or are they going to see what happened after the scandal? So this is like number five is like, you need to do PR on that adjustment.
Linda Zebian [00:27:15]:
Exactly. And it’s actually a great opportunity. Right? Like, what a headline? Like, six months after the worst food poisoning outbreak in Charlottesville, ice cream company X opens a new store or launches a new vegan flavor or whatever, and, oh, we toured the facility. Look how clean and sanitary it is. Here’s what they learned. And you put your face out there, and people love it. They love a comeback. So get your comeback going and PR the heck out of it.
Christina Nicholson [00:27:50]:
I love that. Okay, last question I have for you. Journalists love trends. Like, everything about getting coverage. It’s got to be trending right now. It’s not got to be newsworthy right now. When it comes to crisis communications, are there any trends you see besides the go into the most humble room of your house if you’re a celebrity and record your apology video and then post it on social media.
Linda Zebian [00:28:17]:
Yeah. I don’t know if this is really a trend, but I do love the sit down interview. Yeah, I do love the sit down interview, but you got to be really solidly media trained to do those. But I do think that those carry a lot of weight and they have a lot of value. Right. That morning show interview or the profile, if you didn’t want to be on camera, you could do a print profile, digital profile, and I think there’s a lot of value there. I think that’s, like, the gold standard. I think these social media if I was Ashton and Plan, that’s what I would have done.
Linda Zebian [00:29:00]:
Right. I don’t want to talk about it. Go on a podcast if you don’t want to be podcasts are great, too. You can get your sound bites out there on a podcast. Go on a podcast about something else and then let them bring it up, right? And have that be your moment where you’re talking about your new movie, but you tell the producer in advance, hey, this is okay. I’m open to talking about it. It’s a win win. You promote your movie, and you apologize.
Christina Nicholson [00:29:33]:
You know who recently did that? And it was terrible for them for so many reasons was Raquel from Vanderpump Rules. She went on Bethany’s podcast, and it was so wrong for so many reasons. One, Bethany didn’t even watch the show, so she was an uninformed host. And Howie Mandel did this with Tom Sandobal about the same topic. Howie Mandel did not watch the show, so he was not informed on the entire topic he would have been talking about. And then with Raquel, she clearly did not have any PR training, and she was not remorseful, and she kept making excuses, and it was a hot mess for her, and it was a bad look for her, and it was a bad look for Bethany as the host. Same with Howie Mandel and Tom Sandoval. Like, terrible, because, again, they did it thinking that they were doing that step five and adjusting, but they were not properly trained or talked to about the purpose of that step five.
Christina Nicholson [00:30:38]:
Are you following me, Linda?
Linda Zebian [00:30:40]:
Do you watch vanderpump Rules? I know I don’t, but I know I’ve heard of this scandal.
Christina Nicholson [00:30:46]:
How could you not hear of Scandal?
Linda Zebian [00:30:48]:
Right. Scandal. Okay. Yeah. So, I mean, I guess the only thing I would say is, if you’re going to let somebody else tell your story, you better dang make sure that that person is a professional journalist. So maybe podcaster I should know or know who you’re going like, know what show you’re going.
Christina Nicholson [00:31:08]:
Yeah. Or somebody somebody who actually watched the show. Like Bethany. Yes, she’s from Bravo, but she has a mission now on how Bravo treats their cast terribly. So, like, she had an agenda going into it when maybe a better podcaster would have been the not skinny, not. Fat podcast where everything she does is all about Bravo, and she’s well versed. She’s seen every episode. She knows what’s going on.
Christina Nicholson [00:31:39]:
It was just a hot mess. And to make it worse, when that was a three part series, there were three different episodes.
Linda Zebian [00:31:46]:
Sure. Because you’re going to maximize that, right?
Christina Nicholson [00:31:49]:
Linda Zebian [00:31:50]:
Yeah. So I think, too, when you’re evaluating the media outlet, don’t just look at the reach. Right? We all get distracted by the gigantic numbers. I want to reach so many people with this. But do you really? Or do you want to reach the right people? And do you want to have, like, a well done production where the host knows what they’re talking about and you can potentially even work with a producer producer host who knows what they’re talking about?
Christina Nicholson [00:32:20]:
Oh, my gosh. Such a good point. Okay, before we say goodbye, is there anything else that I should have asked that you want to touch on about crisis communications? This has been so long overdue on my podcast, by the way. I’ve never talked about this. It’s amazing.
Linda Zebian [00:32:38]:
Not at all. Yeah, no, I think we got it all.
Christina Nicholson [00:32:42]:
Okay. And I will link to Muck Rack in the show notes for this episode. I will also link to your LinkedIn page. Is there any other place where people should go to learn more about you and what you do and what happens over there at Muck Rack?
Linda Zebian [00:32:57]:
No, I think those are the two best spots.
Christina Nicholson [00:33:00]:
Okay, awesome. Thank you, Linda.
Linda Zebian [00:33:03]:
Thank you so much, Christina. It was a real pleasure talking about this topic with you today.
Christina Nicholson [00:33:10]:
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