“Let us talk”: incorporating the Coordinated Management of Meaning's communication perspective as part of public diplomacy efforts between government, the private sector, and the foreign public | Humanities and Social Sciences Communications – Nature.com

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Humanities and Social Sciences Communications volume 9, Article number: 290 (2022)
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The present study aims to explore the current model of communication applied between critical stakeholders such as the government and private sector engaged in public diplomacy efforts for promoting or improving the country’s reputation to the foreign public. A literature review shows that the current communication model applied by the mentioned stakeholders is based on the transmission model, which, to be successful, relies on an ideal version of the communication process where the message gets clearly through the channel while assuming the receiver’s understanding is as close as it gets to the sender’s intention. This process, however, omits communication complexities that derive from such a process where new social realities are being co-created by stakeholders. Consequently, the authors argue that there is a need to introduce a communication model that enables stakeholders to achieve a more sustainable coordination-focused outcome that would benefit both government and the private sector. The methodology is based on the Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) theoretical framework that helps identify the current transmission-based public diplomacy communication model while recommending a new model based on a communication perspective. Finally, a communication model is created to describe the needed shift from the current traditional public diplomacy communication process (based on the transmission model) to the one suggested by CMM. Further research is needed where the actual CMM-based communication model will be applied by stakeholders and adequately monitored and evaluated.
The strategic partnership between public institutions and the private sector (White, 2015) is imperative in public diplomacy endeavors. In some situations, coordination between public diplomacy efforts and the private sector leads to substantial global promotional campaigns with positive results in nation branding (Pamment, 2015). Seeing public diplomacy as a non-unitary concept and instead employing a more multi-dimensional concept, which is greatly influenced by the world of business (Wang, 2006), requires constant theoretical updates and revision of practical tools used by public diplomacy practitioners. However, the objective of this paper is not to create a unified theory of public diplomacy by including a few of its multiple functions (soft power, country image and reputation, place branding, nation branding) as an outcome. The authors attempt to add another communication perspective on how those functions can be created and coordinated by being more inclusive to other stakeholders. Considering this, we see the whole process as interdependent since public institutions are responsible for offering support to private institutions in the shape of public services and infrastructure. It is essential when engaging in promoting the country to the foreign public where, in this case, place branding (which can be significantly supported by public diplomacy) goes beyond just promoting the image of the place and adding the notion of brand experience, which is dependent on the infrastructure of the place and its maintenance (Hanna and Rowley, 2013).
The country’s history and culture also shape its attempts to employ public diplomacy tools to improve and maintain a positive international image (Szondi, 2008, p. 9). Szondi’s comparison of public diplomacy and national branding mentions, among other differences, the government’s role from the public diplomacy standpoint to be an “initiator as well as the sender of messages,” where the government would exercise more central control over the message. At the same time, nation branding perceives the government as someone who “could be the initiator but rarely the sender because of (danger of propaganda)—less or no government control (Szondi, 2008, p. 17).
Additionally, Hartig (2017) argues that public diplomacy is not without its “negative dimension,” wherein, in the case of Australia and Germany, countries can engage in a narrative aimed to deter potential migrants/refugees instead of the traditional “attracting” strategies employed by public diplomacy. Considering that we are aware of multiple applications of public diplomacy strategies, we can argue that in many cases, we have a situation where the government relies on political rhetoric and often fails to communicate effectively with both the domestic private sector and the foreign public.
Consequently, we propose that the above-mentioned triadic communication process between key stakeholders such as the government, the private sector, and the foreign public can significantly benefit by using concepts of communication theory, namely the Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM). Coordinated management of meaning is a part of interpretive theories; more specifically is considered to be an interpersonal communication theory used by practitioners from different backgrounds (Pearce, 2005, p. 37). The current public diplomacy communication is primarily dominated by the well-known transmission model, where communication is seen as a transfer of clear messages through a channel of communication to a receiver. Considering that the recent literature on public diplomacy and political communication recognizes the rise of non-state stakeholders in the global political environment, it is implied that we should go beyond the assumption underlined by the “transmission” model communication campaigns were designed and aimed at foreign public (Kenski and Jamieson, 2017; Olsson, 2013). One of the ways to achieve this is to focus on an integrated approach regarding public diplomacy public, place branding/country reputation, and relational public diplomacy based on their timeliness starting from short/medium term, medium/long-term, and long-term (Golan, 2013, p. 1252).
As explained by Pearce and Cronen (Pearce, 2005), the communication perspective suggests we should not see communication as only a process of creating, sending, and interpreting messages that elicit a response. Rather than looking through communication, it is suggested that we look at the communication process. In doing so, we might see what communication is creating and, in turn, gives us opportunities and tools to change communication patterns to create a better social reality (Griffin, 2014, pp. 66–67). This approach made it possible to identify the present model of public diplomacy communication patterns (Ross, 2002; Gilboa, 2008s) and suggest a new way of looking through the same communication process (Pearce, 2007). In the discussion part, we present the Cupertino 1996 community project as a case study developed by Public Dialogue Consortium, a nonprofit organization aiming to offer solutions based on the communication perspective (Pearce and Pearce, 2000; Mair, 2010). The purpose of this relatively short description of the case study in the discussion part is to introduce the potential of using CMM’s communication perspective to identify communication patterns that are not effective and replace them with the ones that might derive from the main stakeholders involved in the process by asking the following questions suggested by Pearce (2007, p. 53):
What are we making together?
How are we making it?
What are we becoming as we make this?
How can we make better social worlds?
Even though the questions mentioned above might seem rather general at first, the authors argue that they offer a sound foundation for inter-stakeholder communication. The first question asking what we are making together will clarify the goal of the initiative and the format used to create the same; regardless of whether it is a public diplomacy campaign promotion, a vital policy promotion, or a particular place branding strategy requiring coordination among the domestic and foreign public stakeholders. The second question is how we are making it could focus on the basic strategy of including all identified stakeholders in the process by relying on and promoting a dialogic process. The third question, what are we becoming as we make this, would require an analysis of the possible outcomes of actions taken and if the results are the ones we desire for ourselves and other stakeholders. The last question, how can we make better social worlds, is based on the premise that the goal should be to create a better environment (reality) for all stakeholders by identifying better communication patterns. This paper aims to support the further understanding that public diplomacy is not a uniform framework used by governments to improve a country’s image abroad. Instead, it presents a rather complex undertaking affected by the need for a dialogical communication process between the government and the private sector. Additionally, after establishing successful dialogical communication between the government and the private sector, we suggest the continuation of applying similar dialogical communication between government-supported initiatives and the foreign public.
The attempts for the theoretical development of public diplomacy have always been connected to communication concepts. Some authors define diplomacy as “communication applied to the relations among nation-states” (Manheim, 1990, p. 279). One of many viewpoints on how public diplomacy developed is related to sheer necessity as opposed to the advance of technology, media, and public opinion from the previous century and its impact on strategic communication efforts by governments to target the foreign public in a non-traditional diplomatic manner (Gilboa, 2008; Gregory, 2008; Cull, 2013; Ross, 2002). Additionally, assessing and creating global public opinion as part of international relations was increasingly being seen as an important way to communicate with foreign audiences through different channels of communication, especially in the case of the United States. It is deemed accurate since countries pay attention to public opinion about U.S. foreign policy when they make important decisions on issues that matter to the U.S. (Goldsmith and Horiuchi, 2009; Goldsmith and Horiuchi, 2012).
On the other hand, there is an imminent need to evaluate the impact of public diplomacy efforts after their implementation. Often, they create a perception of the “other side” that sometimes goes without a follow-up analysis. Therefore, even though the public diplomacy program evaluation is not an easy task to perform, more attention is recommended to measure and evaluate the program’s impact (Buhmann and Sommerfeldt, 2021, p. 123).
Considering that the essential part of the paper is communication, it is equally essential to mention that the authors do not attempt to push for theoretical dominance of public diplomacy, which is often referred to as “soft power” versus the traditional “hard power.” Authors prefer a more balanced approach similar to Nye’s (2009) “smart power” concept, which essentially argues for the need for soft and hard power if one wants to be more effective in diplomatic endeavors. The two main and often opposing viewpoints where the first considers public diplomacy as an ever-evolving academic field that, in the beginning, admittedly lacked an analytical framework. At the same time, the second view is the one that focuses on literature where the main contributors were practitioners and policy advocates (Gregory, 2008). It is acknowledged that coordination between scholars and practitioners enriched attempts for public diplomacy development since it shifted the previous theoretical and rather generalist elaboration focused chiefly on its goals (Gilboa, 2008, p. 57).
A thematic analysis (Nowell et al., 2017; Tuckett, 2005) was applied in the case of two articles (Ross, 2002; Gilboa, 2008), which helped identify communication models used in public diplomacy. Terms like conceptual and theoretical framework are used interchangeably (Collins and Stockton, 2018) since, although coordination, coherence, and mystery are concepts of CMM, the parts where we further use CMM to offer a different view on dialogical communication are rather theoretical. The choice to employ conceptual discussions based on the Coordinated Management of Meaning as the primary theoretical lens is linked with the premises of social constructivism and its foundation on the creation of social reality through human interaction and communication. The present paper identifies previous transmission-focused models of communication applied in public diplomacy and uses the theoretical framework of CMM to enhance another convergence-based approach between public diplomacy and the private sector based on a communication perspective.
Furthermore, the dialogical approach is derived from research in organizational development (Bushe and Marshak, 2014; Wasserman, 2015), where CMM is considered an integral part of the development of the field.
Ross (2002, p. 77) argues that public diplomacy principally functions in two different and yet closely connected ways; the first one deals with the communication of policy where the focus is to articulate governmental policy clearly to different states and its audiences and make sure the message is being received, while the second way deals with the technological advancements and its impact on increasing the efficiency of public diplomacy processes. Gilboa (2008) identified three public diplomacy models based on his previous work: the Basic Cold War model, the Non-state Transnational model, and the Domestic PR model (59). The transmission model of communication arguably characterizes the above-mentioned public diplomacy communication description. Furthermore, they focus on the source designing messaging directed to the receiver hoping that the receiver will change their attitudes or beliefs about the source. In the “Cold War” model, according to Gilboa, the goal was to send messages to the targeted audience, hoping they would have a more balanced view of the other side (2008, p. 59). One of many reasons this model is ineffective is that it assumes that the receiver understands the meaning of the messages since they were designed to be effective and objective.
Furthermore, Gilboa (2008, p. 59) mentions that the “Non-state Transnational” model, on the other hand, recognized the importance of other stakeholders in the process, like the one presented by NGOs, activities groups, or an individual. This approach involves the use of global news media and media events to push their agenda. Campaigns such as the ones that promote democracy in different parts of the world might be one of the ways they manifest (Gilboa, 2008, p. 60). Finally, in the case “Domestic PR” model, the government hires a P.R. company to target their audience since a local P.R. company might have a better idea of achieving communication goals in the specific political and cultural environment (Gilboa, p. 2008, p. 60).
We argue that all three models presented by Gilboa (2008), which encapsulate how public diplomacy functioned, are becoming less effective in dealing with the complexities of today’s communication processes, which involve government, private sector, and foreign public. Most of the mentioned communication strategies and models used in public diplomacy focus on sending the message and not enough focus is given to the actual feedback or the impact of the messages in terms of their power to create new social realities in targeted audiences.
It is accepted that the private sector has the potential and capabilities to contribute to public diplomacy. Corporations may be more ready to support the whole process than directly engage, considering the sensitivity of their economic interest (White, 2015). The present paper refers to both business diplomacy (Nobre, 2017) and commercial and corporate diplomacy (White, 2015) efforts as the “private sector.” The private sector, which is part of what is known as non-state actors by public diplomacy literature, can be engaged in different collaborative capacities by the public sector, assuming that the goal is to create a more effective public diplomacy strategy.
At the same time, domestic stakeholder engagement is seen as an important element of public diplomacy initiatives focused on nation branding (Zaharna, 2011). When realizing the non-state actors’ potential for public diplomacy, public institutions can approach these stakeholders for collaboration and, at the same time, make sure they have a channel for collaborative opportunities that come from non-state actors (Lee and Ayhan, 2015).
The following discussion entails concepts from organizational development, which in the last decade has been applying CMM in its theoretical development where the dialogic mindset is one of them. The dialogical approach has been applied in an organizational setting, where it has been argued that organizational context is complex, which makes it hard to achieve predetermined results based on control and planning (Bushe and Marshak, 2014). It has helped develop relationships among non-state stakeholders such as NGOs and the media (Ting Lee and Hemant Desai, 2014). On the other hand, inclusive dialogic organizational development focuses on discriminatory communicative patterns that occur in the organization and especially concerns different sub-groups who might have a different experience from what is described by the dominant narrative in the organization (Wasserman, 2015, p. 337).
Pearce (2005) started developing CMM in mid 70’ while the political scene in the United States was going through critical social transitions due to civil rights movements and the war in Vietnam. They argue that the self is created through narratives, which should be seen as guidelines for taking action. Accordingly, they argue, one is enabled with a tool to explore themselves, experience, and change through different practices while interpreting and reinterpreting their own stories. Holmgreen (2004, p. 96) describes this process by giving an example related to re-telling practices where one would have the opportunity to be listened to and listen to others how they would interpret what they just heard while keeping in mind that the person claims to have “the truth” about their life.
Pearce and Pearce (2000) argue that people usually focus on not so important issues such as who talks to whom, who is listening, how they speak, and what language they use. Continuing from this, they suggest taking on a communication perspective based on the premise that what persons involved in conversation say and do in relation to each other is the material that makes what one can describe a dominating reality, such as class, gender, ideology, and personalities (Pearce and Pearce, 2000, p. 408). This perspective takes a different approach toward communication than the more traditional top-down social theories. Moreover, it focuses on the process rather than on desired outcomes or initial conditions, meaning a process where efforts are put into creating conversations where they otherwise would not have existed and shaping these conversations in specific ways (Pearce and Pearce, 2000, p. 408). One of the main concepts of CMM is the explanation of coordination, coherence, and mystery as part of how we create and understand the meaning. It is crucial for the involved stakeholders in the public diplomacy communication efforts to be acquainted with the mentioned CMM concepts to acknowledge the communication perspective’s complexity that opens new ways of understanding the potential of joint endeavors. According to Pearce (1989, p. 20), coordination focuses on practices in which persons attempt to call a synergic representation of their visions of the good, the desirable, and the expedient and prevent synergic depiction of what they envision as ugly and obstructive. Nevertheless, this does not mean that those who coordinate their actions have a complete understanding of the intentions of the other communicator or that they fully “agree” about what they are doing.
Coherence—refers to how people create and share stories for others and themselves to interpret and understand the world. What is important for this concept and the central premise of the present thesis is the necessity of not assuming that these stories are the only accurate description of us. Consequently, as described by Pearce (1989, p. 21), coherence opposes claims that there is a basic irreducible foundation for human interpretation of the world. From here derives the proposition that it is somewhat dangerous to claim that there is a proper interpretation of the world and that other interpretations are merely false.
Mystery-Pearce describes this concept as sternly contradictory with the attempt to impose the so-called “rational” perspective on the stories and the coordinated patterns of actions in which we live. Furthermore, the mystery is a reminder of how complex is the process of the social construction of reality since we live in a multiverse of stories, which are interpreted in different ways, which increases the chances for our attempt to create particular events or objects in the social world (Pearce, 1989).
The practical implications of the dialogical perspective are cross-contextual. NGOs, for example, have been advocating for dialog between essential stakeholders and the public for a long time. They have been an essential stakeholder in global politics in the last few decades. There is a long history of collaboration between non-governmental organizations and the United Nations. Willetts (2000) points out that this collaboration started when the UN Charter was drafted in 1945, and NGOs are since been part of all UN conferences. While acknowledging the importance of NGOs and their collaboration with the UN, there is an essential critical aspect of their limited influence in different contexts. Moreover, in a study done by Dany (2014, p. 433), it is highlighted that NGOs’ influence was somewhat limited in the case of the world summit in the information society (WSIS), either because of the irrelevancy of the issues for NGOs or that the issues concerned only a limited number of NGOs.
One of the reasons such organizations are effective is that they are usually task-focused and led by people with a common interest while completing different services and humanitarian functions. Another vital function is that they are often the link between the public and the government by voicing concerns prior to the latter and actively monitoring public policies, among other things (Broś, 2017).
Another critical contextual situation where the dialogical model could be seen as beneficial is public relations. More specifically, this pertains mainly to the campaign type of work when public diplomacy effort includes public relations as a communication-centered tool. Recent theoretical development in the field of public relations points to the positioning theory (James, 2014). Both CMM and positioning theory are founded on social constructivism, suggesting taking the communication perspective in both academic theorizing and applied context.
Organizations spend resources attempting to position things in the targeted audience without paying attention to rights and duties, including the impact of the local moral hierarchy (James, 2014, p. 25). James (2014, pp. 25–26) offers extensive examples (campaigns) to illustrate how positioning theory presents a different way of analyzing and designing public relations activities. Moreover, according to James (2014, 26), positioning theory allows for treating public relations as a societal phenomenon and as e set of techniques and processes aimed at the management of meaning and communication, which is very similar to what CMM intends to do for actors using the communication perspective.
James (2014) offers many examples of different public relations campaigns that could be observed through the positioning theory lenses. Examples differ from place promotion by focusing on a mix of religious faith (case of Spain) to campaigns designed to oppose genetic engineering (James, 2014, 25–26). Such depiction is offered to illustrate the complexities of public relations campaigns and the need to view them from a more holistic approach rather than the normative aspect or only the ones that won awards. Similarly, we offer the case of the Cupertino Community Project (Pearce and Pearce, 2000) to exemplify how CMM can be applied so that the parties involved in disagreements can be equipped with the communication tools that will enable them to resolve present situations. Situations prior to this were handled from a transmission-based communication model.
Also, to demonstrate the practical implication of adding CMM to public diplomacy’s communication framework design, where both non-state actors and the foreign public will be considered, we will use Pearce and Pearce’s (2000, p. 408) approach to the case of the Cupertino Community Project: Voices and Visions. This project was conducted on behalf of the Public Dialogue Consortium; a nonprofit organization focused on delivering an advanced communication-based solution for the public good (see https://publicdialogue.org/). Namely, Cupertino’s 1996 community project is a community-focused engagement project. Sudden change in the ethnic composition of the city was the main issue about which that community was concerned (Pearce and Pearce, 2000, p. 407). Additionally, the traditional approach of dealing with citizens’ complaints, where a specific commission would receive them and prepare responses, was deemed very ineffective and often took the form of legal prosecutions based on discrimination (Pearce and Pearce, 2000, p. 409). One of the reasons this happened relates to dealing with a problem after something happens rather than preventing the same.
The approach of one side being the victim and the other taking the blame did not yield any sustainable results. Practitioners noticed the unequal distribution of power in the dialog, among other challenging situations. The goal was to create an effective public dialog process, which made things slightly more complicated. At this point, Pearce and Pearce (2000, 411) explain the implications of politics, which often hinders dialog since they are not the same thing precisely because of the uneven distribution of power. There was an attempt to replace the conventional understanding of power as something that people have on different levels and as something that dominates all other types of relationships; with something constructed in unfinished interactions.
The following is a summary of the project described by Mair (2010), where a chronological description of the 5-year-long project is offered. One can see how different phases overcame some of the mentioned issues. Mair goes on and further describes all four phases of the project. The first one was where groups discussed issues. The second one addressed city-based issues identified by the first phase and was characterized by inter-generational interviews and small groups dialogs. The third phase was developed around City Council, where concerned citizens discussed ideas; a 2-day citywide leadership event took place during this phase. Finally, phase four was developed around citizens’ discussion of their concerns and ideas, which helped institutionalize ideas gathered from the previous two phases (Mair, 2010). One of the main ideas of CMM’s approach was to avoid the existing cause-effect communication process, which was applied by the city’s administration before, and to see non-utilized opportunities that can be socially designed or created. Related to the Cupertino communication process between city officials and the community members, it was about “creating conversations where they otherwise would not have existed and shaping these conversations in specific ways” (Pearce and Pearce, 2000, p. 408).
By using the same distinction between previously identified transmission models of communication in the public diplomacy, authors have created the following table in an attempt to illustrate the suggested possible shift between traditional public diplomacy communication explained by Ross (2002), Gilboa (2008), to the CMM model of communication offered by Pearce (2007), as a guideline for the triadic communication process between key stakeholders (Table 1).
The present paper benefits the theoretical development of public diplomacy where it is argued for more theoretical convergence of public diplomacy and other communication fields such as public relations (Macnamara, 2012), public opinion research, health communication, media psychology, and others. Arguably, this is only one of eight possible venues as part of the future research agenda for the 2020s for communication evaluation and measurement recommended by Volk and Buhmann (2019, pp. 172–175).
At the same time, public diplomacy practitioners gain a practical tool for initiating communication-centric efforts by using the mentioned CMM post-transmission model of communication. The need for including stakeholders in triadic communication efforts is based on recognizing the insufficiency of public institutions to handle public diplomacy efforts by themselves, considering the financial and human resource limitations (Lee and Ayhah, 2015).
Therefore, as previously explained, a CMM model of communication offers an inclusive and alternative view of the process by elucidating possibilities for a new communication-based framework for leading dialog between main stakeholders. Below we depict one of the ways proposed by Pearce that would enable what can be known as an alternative form of communication between parties involved in a dispute, misunderstanding, or organizational or political crisis (2007).
The authors recommend the same guideline to be used as a part of the future public diplomacy communication handbook for initiating regular meetings or conferences between state and non-state stakeholders with a focus on public diplomacy endeavors (adapted from Pearce, 2007, p. 18):
Constructing a richer story about what happened, including: An understanding of the targeted audience and self-reflection, and historical context.
Constructing a more systemic description of what happened: Reducing possible ethnocentric-based messaging, which requires going beyond “us” and “them” to the patterns that “we” are involved.
Facilitating an increased awareness of the roles the stakeholders play in making the world in which they live: Noting their responsibility for making patterns in which they find themselves and opportunities for acting in new creative ways.
Changing the context: Providing a new interpretation of what is necessary or relevant (including “common ground”). If necessary, move to a different space or place; and Changing the set of participants in the public diplomacy conversation.
Minding and caring about the kind of energy that is involved.
Following the maxim that what we pay attention to is growth. It is argued that “appreciative” energy is far more productive than “deficit” energy. The communication perspective enables public diplomacy professionals to be more open to sourcing ideas from the public when preparing policies focused on promoting the country abroad. Castells (2008) helps us better understand the importance of the public sphere in this process by defining it as a place where there is a communication of ideas sourced from society and addressed to the institutional stakeholders of that society. We agree that the communication process is the essence of what Castells calls a “diplomacy of the public, not of the government,” which will be used as the foundation for public diplomacy that, in turn, is not limited by the constraints of power-relationship when creating cultural meaning (Castells, 2008).
Another approach where the “non-state public diplomacy” is further pushed is developed by the relatively newly growing movement presented by multi-actor diplomacy, where classic public diplomacy is complemented by business diplomacy. It is further supported by multi-national corporations’ use of business diplomacy tools when dealing with market reputation, their position in the market, and legitimacy (Noordhoek, 2017; Nobre, 2017).
To better handle developments in the field, future research should focus on preparing a more detailed handbook that would be introduced to state and non-state stakeholders in the public diplomacy process, so they could have the necessary resources to make the shift from traditional to the CMM-centered public communication diplomacy. Only through the application can we identify episodes where intervention is necessary so the future triadic dialog between mentioned stakeholders will be more effective. Present times are characterized by interconnectedness through communication technology. Public diplomacy was not immune to such rapid development of the globalized world. Accordingly, it needs to function and navigate in the constantly changing environment by being aware of its potential but also acknowledging other actors that can have an impact like theirs (Lee and Ayhan, 2015, p. 62).
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Liberal Arts Department, American University of the Middle East, Egaila, Kuwait
Blerim Limani
Marketing Department, American University of the Middle East, Egaila, Kuwait
Emira Limani
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Correspondence to Blerim Limani.
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This article does not contain any studies with human participants performed by any of the authors.
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Limani, B., Limani, E. “Let us talk”: incorporating the Coordinated Management of Meaning’s communication perspective as part of public diplomacy efforts between government, the private sector, and the foreign public. Humanit Soc Sci Commun 9, 290 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-022-01308-z
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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-022-01308-z
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