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The EU blogosphere and yet another Brussels lobbying company

Yesterday I was talking on a panel on the EU blogosphere, together with Mathew, Gergely, Andy and Mark.

We had a short debate of low depth compared to what you can read in blog posts on this topic. The essence one could take away from our discussion came from two of the speakers.

Gergely, one of the spokespersons of the Hungarian Council Presidency, said that what the EU bubble – online and offline – is missing is some “blood”. He said that he misses stories of failure from inside the institutions instead of all the “success spin” and that he’d like to see serious scepticism from outside and inside the institutions through social media.

And Andy, a former blogger and now a Brussels journalist, reminded the audience that bloggers as well as journalists should pay attention not to become victims of the spin of institutional communicators or PR and PA companies with big interests.

The latter was most important since the discussion we had was hosted by the public affairs and public relations company MHPC which is opening an office in Brussels.

It’s just another of the many companies in Brussels that will try to organise the EU policy spin for corporate and other clients, and when you look at their website it looks like most other communication and lobbying firms around the city, pretending to be cool and professional but most likely ready to do whatever is necessary to earn (a lot of) money, nothing new and nothing special.

I didn’t actually mind to speak at such an event because as a editor it doesn’t matter where you talk about the EU blogosphere if you can.

But looking at all those people in their suits and the MHPC, law and lobby firm, European Parliament and other organisations’ badges you were wondering whether Brussels needs more of the same corporate stuff.

I also doubt whether they actually get the concept of citizen media, even having Mark Pack as head of their digital affairs. They definitely will not bring any change regarding what I’ve observed in “Why there is no serious blogging scene in Brussels” because they are businessmen, not citizens.

In my eyes, nobody needs more companies like MHP in Brussels – especially not citzens – and you realised this when you listened to the introductory speech one of them – a lobbyist in a suit – gave. His talk is full of PR/PA bullshit language that is saying nothing at all – probably because they have nothing to say. Just listen to his speech:

What the MHPC guy is telling is nothing but the usual corporate self-promotion-useless–buzzword-stuff most of these Brussels communication companies are telling. Pretending to be different he says what everyone says, and even in an extra-extreme buzzwordy-way.

And apparently this is the general style of the company, as you can see here:

YouTube Preview Image

Now being in Brussels, this MHP buzzwording will very likely either be paid by the European taxpayer through contracts from the EU institutions who don’t want anything but buzzwording or this buzzwording will be hiding very straightforward lobbying and “reputation management” (aka “spin” or “propaganda”) against the interest of the European taxpayers done behind the scenes and paid for by interests who prefer not to be seen.

So it was nice to discuss the EU blogosphere and get one or two drinks afterwards but that’s all. The rest was more of the same in Brussels:

A reception on Place Luxembourg in the middle of the EU bubble organised by some lobbyist company attended by a lot of lobbyists, some people from the institutions and a few bloggers one of which felt like an alien in the midst of non-citizens.

24 Responses to The EU blogosphere and yet another Brussels lobbying company

  1. avatar BarcaLover says:

    Agreed. Lacked substance. At one point, someone from outside loudly said “boring!” She was absolutely right!

  2. avatar Nosemonkey says:

    I’m rather glad I didn’t bother now…

  3. avatar QuestionEverything says:

    On the positive side – I’m not a regular blog reader but the mini Q&A session made me want to read more (and led me here today…)

    Furthermore it made me even more aware that all blogs should be broached with a degree of cynism- I should question them as I do articles in the mainstream press. Bloggers, as with traditional publishers, are not always without agenda.

    I’m not sure if you’re merely trying to be provocative when you use the term ‘non-citizens’ to describe a group of people that you are judging based on the organisations on their lapel badges. To be honest, as someone who works in the institutions, I find this assumption slightly offensive- and very ignorant. Nonetheless, I will probably follow your blog in future to find out whether this judgemental arrogance is a one-off or a consistent element of your writing.

  4. avatar Ronny Patz says:


    Thanks for your comment and your criticism. The reference to “non-citizens” is not meant as arrogance – although you are right that re-reading the line the boundary is quite thin.

    In fact, the remark about “non-citizens” is an implicit reference to my earlier blog post “Why there is no serious blogging scene in Brussels” in which I argued that one problem why social media is not well-developed in EU-Brussels is that everyone who is here is actually affiliated to a particular interest (institutional, media, lobby).

    This affiliation makes that most people in the bubble are, in my view, seldom able to speak freely as citizens, at least when it comes to EU affairs. You for example have decided not to publish your name here on the blog which is totally okay for me but you may have decided to do so because you work inside the institutions.

    “Non-citizens” thus is a provocative reference to this argumentation but I agree that if you didn’t read my earlier post this may have sounded quite bold or arrogant. Suppose my next posts will be a little less provocative.

  5. avatar mathew says:

    I agree with quite a lot of what you say, but your tone is a bit ripe, Ronny. In fact you’re coming across as a bit of a snob, appearing to view others who are not experienced bloggers like you as not having a rightful place in social media.

    Just because the level was below your standards doesn’t mean that we didn’t encourage one or two newcomers to explore launching a blog. Everyone begins somewhere.

    As you know, my purpose in inviting you was so that we can raise awareness of the issues confronting the development of the EU online public space in general, and of in particular.

    And as I said in my post and at the event, I agreed to organise the panel because MHP agreed to fly in BP editors from outside Brussels to contribute.

    I was pretty disappointed when none came, leaving us with the Brussels Bubble event you describe and criticise (as have I in the past).

    But we (BP) were the reason the panel looked like something from the heart of the Bubble – it would in fact have been 100% Bubble if MHP hadn’t brought Mark Pack across! We were no use at all in terms of bringing in views from outside Brussels!

    So we’re the Bubble. In the spirit of provocation, it seems to me that some of us seem to like it that way. Small ponds are always more comfortable.

    Anyway, after this post from you, I doubt any BP editors will accept the next invitation, if there is one. Nosemonkey’s comment sums it up. So much for building bridges.

  6. avatar Nosemonkey says:

    Mathew – not to say I wouldn’t be interested in future events. Just glad that I didn’t take the time out of a busy week for *this* one, necessarily.

    The key thing to remember, I think, is that their hearts are (sort of) in the right place – at least they’re trying, even if they don’t quite know what they’re doing yet. And the offer to fly people in was unusual – and a welcome step.

    I can see where Ronny’s coming from, though. I remember feeling similar levels of frustration back when the UK political blogging scene was in its early stages: – that was more than six years ago, but a lot of the complaints are very similar to Ronny’s.

    The position of UK political blogs has improved a fair bit since then (though there are noted problems, especially with some of the most influential being some of the least respectable) – I’m optimistic that the same may happen for EU blogs over the coming years.

    It’s early days.

  7. avatar Phil Turner says:

    I was there. 2 quick thoughts:

    1. “A reception on Place Luxembourg in the middle of the EU bubble organised by some lobbyist company attended by a lot of lobbyists, some people from the institutions and a few bloggers one of which felt like an alien in the midst of non-citizens”.

    So, were you an alien amongst the suit wearing “non citizens”? Or, were you really a bit similar to those around you?

    2. You didn’t mention Michael Cashman who, I thought was

    a. Funny.
    b. Thoughful.
    c. Reasonable
    d. A bit inspiring(considering that he and the Chief Exec that you single out worked at Stonewall together).

    (And, he wore a suit). By all means criticise. Maybe your argument has some validity, but in expressing it as you do, you undermine your own case.

  8. avatar Ronny Patz says:


    If I come across as a snob this was not my intention – but since with Phil you are the third one to point to that in the comments there’s a great chance that I do in fact come across like that in this post.

    I admit that I used a tone that is a little harsh – I blame Gergely for asking for more blood 🙂 – but it’s definitely not about qualifying the debate as below “my standards”. It’s about a 45 minutes debate held between five people in which only a few arguments could be exchanged without having the time to enter into thorough discussion or argumentation, making it low depth by nature. There’s nothing good nor bad in that, it’s a fact.

    I think I just prefer a longer debate with a focus on argumentation over some quick remarks. This doesn’t say that this isn’t important outreach and may encourage one or the other to become involved which is great.

    Regarding the bubble:

    What I realised again yesterday during the reception and in particular through the speech that I’ve recorded is that while I may be involved in EU affairs through social media, research and some activism I don’t feel part of the bubble. Maybe this is wrong self-image, but this was maybe my fifth Brussels reception ever and for me this remains a foreign world. For me, this Place-Lux Brussels bubble is a place that is defined by the business of politics largely ignoring the real world, a world that for me looks much more like t-shirt and jeans in Matonge than like a suit and a Mojito on Place Lux.

    I realised again yesterday that I’m in EU social media because I simply like to discuss EU politics as an activist and because I like to think about how to make the real EU bubble more open and transparent, even if that means I have to be involved in the a parallel online bubble. A bit naïve maybe, I know, but I don’t mind.

    However, in the end I might not even have written this blog post (in particular not in that tone) had the speech introducing MHP not been so bad that it reminded me very strongly that this was not about an in-depth debate about building bridges or involving citizens but about some superficial PR intended to enter a high-value politics market to do lobbying and PA. Had he said something more convincing, more human, I wouldn’t have felt this strongly about the evening and would not have blogged about it.

    And last but not least:

    I see your point in building bridges and you know I agree on the need to do that. But I feel that we should focus on opening up the bubble from the inside – which also means to bring in a culture of debate and criticism that Gergely has rightly asked for. This already is quite a lot of work, and I don’t see many people who would also have the additional time to invest (beyond the rare outside-the-bubble events) to build the bridges.

    If Brussels doesn’t become more human, more normal, closer to reality and from the inside, nobody actually wants to build bridges because these will always be bridges in a quasi-dead zone of abstract politics.

    Now I feel that this is again way too bold and lacks the shades of grey, but maybe the problem of the Brussels bubble is that it’s so full of shades of grey.

    @ Phil

    I didn’t mention Michael Cashman because I think he was entertaining but he was just there to raise the profile of the opening. He didn’t even tell openly why he chose a lobby company like MHP as the rare occasions where he would go to a reception against his usual habits (as he described them in his speech).

  9. The problem with events held in Brussels will always be that they’re only attended by people in Brussels. I think you can’t really expect much else – even if you drag in people from elsewhere to be on the panel. When the event is held on Place Lux, you know to whom it’s aimed at really.

    I wasn’t at the event and I’m very much in the bubble myself these days but I don’t think there’s necessarily anything supercilious about communications agencies promoting online presence.

    From what I understand, these agencies are there to try and promote engagement in social media. Citizens are likely to do so already if they’re interested and they have a far easier job at it – it’s the companies and the institutions that need to learn about it. Citizens don’t need to be convinced they have something to say nor do they need to think about a company line.

    We’re being naive if we assume blogging is all about citizen to citizen communication. I know I would have loved to read an honest blog from a EU official or someone in the private sector when I was a student to know what that’s like. Because that’s all part of the EU, just the same as the citizens are. Like it’s been mentioned before, the division between non-citizens and citizens seems obscure. I work at the Parliament and still think of myself as a citizen.

    That said, it’s fantastic that someone dares to critisise the events and motives. When bloggers become complacent, something’s truly wrong in this world.

  10. avatar mathew says:

    @Nosemonkey, thanks for the historical perspective. Let’s hope things improve here, without the problems seen in the UK. The question is therefore: how we can encourage that?

    @Ronny, Yes, thank goodness for Phil and QuestionEverything.

    Sorry for the depth of the debate, but you knew going into it that we only had 30-45 minutes, and so it was only ever going to be outreach event, not an in-depth exploration of the issues. As you know from the ideas I explored in the Google Doc, the fact that we were going to get BP editors flown in for us led me to hope that the panel could have been a sort of trial run for the longer “BloggingPortal Conference” we’ve often considered. Perhaps I am simply expecting too much.

    And now for a reality check: I’ve been in Brussels 20 years … and you’ve been to more receptions like that than I have. You little networker, you! 😉

    I think you’re absolutely right that we have to work on opening up the Bubble from the inside. That is precisely why I do what I do, including running panels to encourage people inside the Bubble to blog. How do you think we launched Blogactiv in 2007? Seminar seminar seminar…

    I don’t want to be drawn into the “All Lobbyists Are Evil anti-Democrats” debate, simply because I wouldn’t know – I spend hardly any time with them, or NGOs, or trade unions, or any of the other organisations trying to put pressure on the EU.

    However, what is clear is that lobbyists are here in Brussels because proximity matters. If we can open Brussels Bubble and make things more transparent, maybe there will be less machinations “against the interest of the European taxpayers done behind the scenes and paid for by interests who prefer not to be seen”.

    Lobbying and PR, in other words, are not immune to the changes brought by social media, and have to adapt. And you know what? Some of the best thinkers in social media are from these industries. I don’t know whether MHP will be in the vanguard or the rearguard, but I was happy to accept their offer to fly people in for the event, and I will work with anyone who wants to accelerate change.

    @Mia, totally agree. My clients do *not* lobby the EU – they provide technical support to help the EU communicate what it does, aiming at audiences outside the Bubble.

    But I don’t think lobbyists, Parliamentarians and Institutional staff are non-citizens. I’m not surprised QuestionEverything finds such blanket denigrations offensive.

    Everyone has a right to take part in social media, not just self-appointed, holier-than-thou bloggers.

    But thank goodness they exist, as otherwise who will spill the blood?

    In that respect, Andy’s point about BP remaining independent is something we must keep at the forefront of our minds.

  11. avatar Caroline says:

    Lobbyists can be bloggers and normal citizens you know…they just have to wear rhino suits to do so 🙂

  12. avatar Mark Pack says:

    @Ronny It was good to meet you at the event, even if we don’t quite see eye to eye on everything 🙂

    Broad labels such as “suits” or “corporates” certainly have their uses, but there is a risk in reading too much into them. For example, I blog and tweet outside of work and I at work the clients include, for example, medical charities through to multinationals.

    Those sort of multiple personas are very common, especially given the way the online world often blurs the distinction between private and work hats (sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse).

    It’s a good point made about the British political blogosphere, and my reading of the last few years is that many of the good developments have come from those distinctions becoming further blurred – and it’s an online community in which politicians, journalists, policy experts, voters and others interact with each other. I think that’s much healthier than see it as an arena only for one of the groups (whether it’s ‘citizens’ or any other).

    (By the way, I agree that there’s much more depth to be found on these issues in blog posts such as your previous one than we managed at the event – but then isn’t that always the way given that people can read much more quickly than they can speak/listen, so you get relatively few words when people are speaking?)

  13. avatar Ronny Patz says:

    Looking at this discussion, I should give another recommendation how to use social media (we were asked that by @mathew at the end of our discussion):

    If you keep it rather short, controversial, superficial, you get a good discussion but you have to spend time with debates that lead into all kinds of directions, suddenly putting you in a defence position (for the right and the wrong reasons).

    If you keep your posts balanced, well-explained, in-depth, geeky, you hardly get any comments but you can feel that you are right and nobody disagrees. Or, you are like @nosemonkey who’s always swimming with the sharks, whatever he writes about the EU…

    There is one point I want to make:

    It’s obvious that a distinction between citizens and non-citizens can’t hold. But again, this was a reference to my previous post on the blogging scene in Brussels, useful to make a point on why blogging in Brussels hasn’t started up.

    And still, I would bet that during our discussion there were very, very few people in the room without a professional (compared to a private) interest in the subject. In a “normal” capital, such an event might have been much more likely (also) attended by the socially active teacher or pupil who would like to listen to the discussion or a blogger who blogs about politics but does not have anything to do with the professional communications circle, people who would come and listen and get involved as interested citizens bringing in some refreshing disturbance. This should be more true online because those physical events may have restricted access.

    I walked around after our discussion was over and took a look at the name tags of a lot of people – and many had put the name of their organisation (a majority were lobby and law firms plus some EP assistants if I would have to estimate, but this may be wrong). So most people were not there in a private capacity (why would the organisation matter then) but in a professional or semi-professional role. Now it’s true that this doesn’t stop them from being citizens, and the distinction was never meant like that, but I doubt that many of them would have been there if they wouldn’t work for the organisations that figured on their name tags.


    I’m not against lobbying (and I did not only list lobbying as an activity but also “reputation management” which includes all kinds of self-branding advice for me). Not at all – it’s part of democracy, as long it is done in the most transparent way.

    But let’s say I am not a fan of spin paid by taxpayers’ money, i.e. public institutions hiring private enterprise to telling the public what what it should think. Instead they should either change how they do things or getting in-house expertise on explaining what they do (which some do quite well) . For me taxpayer-based spin is a public-private partnership that from the outside looks very much like an evasion of positive change paid by public money. And, to be provocative, there are a number of companies who just live from this change evasion in Brussels (and elsewhere)…

    And I’m not a fan of lobbying that hides behind phrases such as those that I’ve captured in the video above which I recommend watching again to understand where this whole article was coming from. Instead of playing PR/PA “bullshit bingo” (as a reminder: We played “Barroso Bullshit Bingo” on 9 months ago), I’d like to know:

    What kind of interests is MHP going to represent in Brussels? With what methods? Do they see social media as a tool that empowers citizens or is it just a new tool that professionals should use to influence policy-makers (as it was asked during our discussion)? How do they think they can actually be different in the Brussels market? If they were different, I think, they would answer these questions.


    Thanks for joining in, and thanks for disagreeing. 🙂 Regarding your hope for change: My guess is that the current situation won’t change in Brussels in the near future for structural reasons (less citizens, much more diplomacy, few people like Gergely), although one should never lose hope.

  14. avatar mathew says:

    As I’ve already said many times (Tuesday, by email, Twitter, posts), I think your previous post about why there’s not a decent blogging scene here was excellent – one of the best I’ve read anywhere for a while.

    It was more the tone of this current post which went too far. But you use it to raise a good point about how different ways of posting leading to different sorts of conversations. For what it’s worth, I’m generally on the geeky, long, fully-thought-through-post end of the spectrum, and traditionally get 5-10 comments, although less recently.

    Anyway, I’m looking for ideas, not trying to convince anyone, so I don’t care about the numbers of comments. It’s the quality of the discussion, not its volume, which counts.

    As for what lobbyists do, you know this better than I do, but my impression was that what you describe – “against the interest of the European taxpayers done behind the scenes and paid for by interests who prefer not to be seen” is not paid for by taxpayers. I think the hint is in the last part of the quoted passage, no?

    Lobbyists trying to convince Institutions on behalf of private interests is one thing. As Mia says, it’s a fact, and others (NGOs, trade unions, etc.) do the same thing. The more the EU online public space develops, the more transparent this becomes to those outside Brussels, and that’ll be a good thing for democracy.

    EU programmes spending a few% of their (taxpayer-funded) budget to explain what they do and why, thus attracting better project proposals and improving results take-up, is something quite different, and is not spin in any way.

  15. avatar Andy says:

    It has to be said that our friend was talking fluent bubble bullshit, but I’d like to chat to him away from his bosses.

    Secondly, when you’ve an event like this, it is essential the panel is in the same room as the booze. apart from the obvious reason, it would also mean the audience would be inside, rather than getting tanked up away from the discussion.

    Alistair Gray also kept trying to needle me by quoting some of my more playful comments about lobbyists, as if I didn’t fully support them. Still, I’m going to be nice to him, he is the head of the DIY association and his members supply much of the equiptment for my lobbyist dungeon I’m constructing.

  16. avatar Alisdair Gray says:

    Hi All – maybe I have worked in this city for so long that I have become immune to any supposed controversy about working as an EU lobbyist.

    In my 14 years here, I have found that the vast majority of people who do this job are honest, obsessive about EU politics and are big supporters of the EU project. One of the attractions of Brussels is that this idea of “spin” doesn’t really feature in our work. EU lobbying is most effective when its about boring technical amendments to boring technical pieces of legislation taking place in a comitology committee stuck somewhere in the Centre Borschette. To get your point of view adopted you need proper data, proper arguments, which are legally watertight and costed. Otherwise you fail.

    Companies do not have the time nor inclination to employ people to do that work given it is often temporary, and so they outsource to those more expert in how to gather this information, present it and explain in a way that resonates with lawmakers.

    Try using spin on the average Member State expert voting on the technical standards for water boilers and you will probably just be greeted with an uncomfortable silence.

    Yes you do get the odd industry wide campaigns to put forward a certain set of viewpoints but those are no more subject to spin than any other campaign on any issue you care to mention by governments, NGOs or companies. I personally see a place for these types of campaign but they themselves are not the decisive element in bringing about change.

    As an example, I spent this morning with some companies who are at a loss to understand why they are having to comply with the REACH Regulation in France in a completely different way than in other MS. The French government doesn’t want to know. The Commission doesn’t want to know. ECHA has said its piece and doesn’t want to know. But you can bet the Enforcement Authorities in France want to know. So what does a company do? Just say I give up, or use the services of someone who has seen these problems before and can advise on how to create a solution of out a pretty chaotic situation.

    Anyway, that is what lobbyists do. Its not that difficult, anyone can do it, you just need to be interested enough in the technical side of things to want to get really deep into an issue. Its a bit nerdy sometimes, but that’s the job right there.

    If I wore a tracksuit to work I doubt I would get taken seriously, but believe me, I would prefer it.

  17. avatar Shogun77 says:

    Alisdair, for your next event you might want to consider either arranging a microphone stand, or if you want to be a little more daring/advanced, a wireless microphone. While standing outside not hearing a word (no room inside) I thought I was missing something – clearly not.

  18. avatar mathew says:

    @Shogun77, Totally agree with the need for amplification. But whether you missed something depends on how much you already know, and what you’re interested in. Ronny’s perspective may not be your own.

    As the chair, I didn’t say that much. But I thought that Mark, Ron, Andy and Gergely all managed to say something interesting in the time allowed. But then I do find the topic interesting.

    But if you aren’t interested in the development of the EU online space, if you don’t care what motivates national- or EU- policy bloggers or Presidency spokesman or newspaper editors, then you were probably better off outside, getting a free drink.

  19. avatar Waterboiler Company says:

    Dear Mr. Gray,
    I am head of Goverment Affairs for one of the largest water boiler manufacturers in Europe. Apart from the fact that I think it a real shame that you might think that technical requirements are boring (i rather not hire somebody who thinks my issues are “boring”), I would still love to hear your thoughts on the comitology process that you refer to and the type of committe an issue may be treated in: I would even more be intrigued to hear how somebody with your skills (“Its not that difficult, anyone can do it, you just need to be interested enough in the technical side of things to want to get really deep into an issue”) can lobby me through an issue in a meeting that is closed to lobbyists. Which directive do my issues come under, I wonder. Thank you.

    Mr. Boring.

  20. avatar A Brussels Bubbler says:

    Tuesday’s launch just about bored the cr@p out of me: it was all pretty sad, I dont think I have anything to worry about with the new ‘competition’ on the block. suggestion for a good tagline for your new venture: “MHP: a dime a dozen”. Lets face it, we lobbyists exist for one reason: to make as much money from having an insight into the inside track of the Brussels Bubble. Of course, you have to first show that you are inside the track and have an insight – both these ingredients were direly missing from tuesday’s snore, so not even the free boooze could keep me there for long.

  21. avatar Kováts says:

    thanks for drawing some blood with your article. This led to the perfect illustration how to create meaningful debate on blogs and the two-way comunication of social-media.
    And I think you created the balance afterwards in your reactions to the comments.
    The next step is how we persuade the institutions themselves to accept criticism and believe that their brand will only grow more robust by admitting that they can also make mistakes.

  22. avatar Anne says:

    Taking a step back and looking at the event as a teaser for potential customers I didn’t leave the event thinking these people actually knew what they were doing or had understood social media. I sat right next to the panel and could hardly hear anything so the potential for people who even bothered to show up to interact was almost non-existent…

    I am looking forward to seeing what they do with the footage – just because the event is over it doesn’t mean the discussion can’t continue online 🙂 I for one would like to watch it and share with my “institutional” colleagues!

    “EU” Anne

  23. avatar Alisdair Gray says:

    Anne – we organised the blogging event for the simple fact that we felt it was an interesting subject for people to get together to talk about. Given Mathew is passionate about it, we wanted to help put together an occasion where other passionate people could come together. If you look at who was in that room, the vast majority were those who read or are in that community of Brussels bloggers. There were practically no “lobbyists” in that room.

    The event outside on the terrace, was more about our business and introducing ourselves to what you call potential customers.

    I noticed you enjoyed the event enough to hang around to the bitter end though – hope you enjoyed the late night meal at Coco’s (don’t worry it was on me).

  24. avatar ZeekReward says:

    Nice read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing a little research on that. And he actually bought me lunch since I found it for him smile Therefore let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch! “Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.” by James Stephens.

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