Charlie Fern's Ink

Do what you say. Say it in color.

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Name: Charlie Fern
Location: San Diego-Austin-Washington-London

Charlie Fern is a former White House speechwriter who runs a full-scale communications consulting, PR and speechwriting firm. Ms. Fern is also an adjunct professor who teaches public relations at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

One Tweet leads to another: an experiment with Twitter

A couple months ago I attended a TPRA seminar on social networking and was astonished to learn that I had been asleep for the past 25 years and missed a technological revolution. Apparently that revolution has produced a new social order in which people can communicate with anyone, anywhere across the world instantly -- the opportunities are limitless! -- except for one oddly arbitrary rule. Each communication must be limited to 140 characters or less if you plan to do it by way of a funky new service called Twitter.

I know when I'm beat. I am an old-school communicator who, this spring, will be teaching college students with attention spans likely limited to what happened four score and seven tweets ago. I had no choice but to join the social experiment.

Armed with my pages of notes from the PR seminar (thanks to presenters such as Connie Reece, Brooks Bennett, Will Hampton, Robert Quigley and others for the insights), I set out to join the 21st Century and enjoy some of the rights and privileges that the technological revolution might afford me.

Arbitrary rules aside, it's a fascinating thing, this Twitter. Connie Reece describe it well. It's essentially the top line from Facebook - "What are you doing now?" - shared in an open forum.

At first, I was perplexed about the 140-character limit (characters, not words).

But Twitter proves that, with a bit of practice, you can communicate a lot in 140 characters or less. Present a golden opportunity with the catch of a creative challenge, and people will rise to the occasion...with abbreviations, short words, acronyms and a Tiny URL converter.

After my initial investment of time and research, I realized that there's something to Twitter beyond idle chatter -- if you understand its capabilities and use it as much as a tool as you would as a pastime. I've connected with people in Germany, Australia, Canada, Great Britain; coast-to-coast in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world. In a matter of weeks.

I've learned things. I posed random questions to complete strangers and received prompt responses from experts in their fields -- in some cases leading professionals and/or company CEOs, entrepreneurs, and peers in my profession.

If you do some research or use Titter's innovative MrTweet, you can find them all here: CEOs. Marketing VPs. Ad executives and professionals like @napril1023. Comedians. Writers who think, like Valeria Malton and (love this one) Canada's "MenwithPens". High-tech entrepreneurs. Neuroscientists! Poets. Free-lance writers, like funny Avenue Z. Government employees. Retired military officers. Musicians. Thought/community leaders like Entregreeneur Bradley Hughes. Journalists. Pundits. Gossip-scientists (?!) like "Cheeky Geeky". Techno-wizards. Moms and dads. Published authors like Cathy Scott. Friends and former colleagues. And they're generally well-behaved people.

I started exploring networks - hopping from one person to the next, following leads down blind alleys to unknown destinations around the world. One person has the potential of leading to a thousand (or more) others. And every person worth following, I've found, has readily available information to scan and determine what's personally relevant. Click on names and see their bios, read their micro-blogs on Twitter, or follow links to their websites and full-on blogs. If you like what you see, you can choose to "follow" them -- which means you receive their micro-blog updates and you can engage them in conversations.


You can follow organizations, as well, for other relevant updates. I follow Starbucks (coffee achiever that I am), and the Times Online (for fantastic headlines and links to stories from the London paper), The Austin American-Statesman, and the Prime Minister of England's office, just for giggles. You can even follow London's Tower Bridge, which Tweets when it opens and closes for boats on the Thames (rather dull, for the most part, but probably handy for captains).

I've read more articles related to my profession in a month than I would have otherwise in six. I've downloaded comics, and pictures, and intriguing quotes, like this one by one Kimberly Bock: "Poetry. Fantasy that drips from the breast of naked thought."

Of course there isn't just one technological answer to life's many questions and pursuits. But, consider this -- although one person cannot be all things to all people, one person can harness the power of Twitter to get a whole lot of value from a whole lot of people in a relatively short amount of time. For free. And with limited advertising. Hallelujah!

Twitter is an experiment with no boundaries, with each participant serving as a catalyst that produces energy and fuels other reactions with an unknown end-product (and lots of interesting by-products). I suspect that many of the people who use Twitter have a shared sense that something beyond the confines of everyday living -- beyond expectations, even -- is unfolding before our eyes.

Through Twitter, people are forming new global societies that rise above our own communities, cultures, values and ideals -- complete with self-generated, make-as-you-go rules of etiquette and human interaction (taught patiently to amateurs by more experienced users). It is, I imagine, what the original founder of the World Wide Web imagined the World Wide Web ought to be. For now, anyway.

Cottage industries are flourishing around it, too. You can find Twitter wikis, widgets, gadgets, decks, bloggers, backgrounds, search engines, instructors, mentors, ranking systems and - oh, so much more on the horizon. It's mind-boggling to think how fast this budding form of communication has moved people and enterprises (and, sadly, the more seedy parasites and troglodytes that we'd like to sluff off the world's underbelly).

In the end -- a brilliant twist, if you ask me -- it seems that Twitter is what you make it. You get out what you put into this nifty tool. That means you have to invest some time and energy if you want the effort to pay off. And, if you want to realize some value, you have to add some value.

As "JKimLosAngeles" Tweeted (said) recently, "I now look forward to checking Twitter more than Facebook everyday. Feel like I am evolving."

He's not the only one. I will say that as useful as Twitter is, it is also rather addictive. Someone may have to write a 12-step program for folks like JKim and me. The other day someone asked how you know you're addicted to Twitter, and I got my answer from a friend (sorry for bringing this up again, dude).

I was on iChat with him, kidding around about getting more information from Twitter that I did from my own friends. He shot back, "We try to tell you stuff, but you say 'Shhh! I'm Twittering with John Cleese now!'" I howled. Seconds later, I was retyping that line in a Tweet. (For the record, I don't Twitter with John Cleese, much as I'd like to.)

Hats off to the guys who dreamed this one up while I was sleeping away the technological revolution. Twitter is not only fun, it's also got a heck of a lot of potential to become something truly meaningful.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Charlie's Mayo Clinic

How do I love, thee, mayo?

Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth of the jar and the bread and the height
my laden knife can go 
I love thee like a summer's day --with picnics and turkey sandwiches
paired with avocado 
and sourdough 

Mayonnaise may just be the most under-rated item in the world of emulsified edibles.  Think about all the things that taste better with mayo.  From burger buns to casseroles, mayo adds that mysterious rich-and-creaminess to many things (often as a "secret" ingredient).  

I should clarify that I'm talking about about Real mayonnaise, because I am a mayonnaise snob. I will not employ anything but 100 percent pure, unadulterated, full-fat, real mayonnaise in my kitchen.  In fact, a sandwich delivered with Miracle Whip might just get a knuckle sandwich in return. 

Wikipedia claims the Oxford English Dictionary credits mayonnaise's American debut to an 1841 cookbook; I will check that fact in an 1800s-era White House cookbook that's in the mail to me as I write.

Most agree that mayonnaise, not in the least by the very nature of its spelling, is French, although how and where it was first whipped into being remains in question.  What isn't questioned is the scarcity of clever quotes on the subject. The best one I've found offhand (and it will do quite nicely) comes from Ambrose Bierce:  "Mayonnaise: One of the sauces which serves the French in place of a state religion."  Which might explain a lot.

According to, "Mayonnaise is made by combining lemon juice or vinegar with egg yolks. Eggs (containing the emulsifier lecithin) bind the ingredients together and prevent separation. Then, oil is added drop by drop as the mixture is rapidly whisked. Adding oil too quickly (or insufficient, rapid whisking) will keep the two liquids from combining (emulsifying). But, as the sauce begins to thicken, oil can be added more rapidly. Seasonings are whisked in after all of the oil has been added. Blenders, mixers and food processors make it easy to make homemade mayonnaise, which many gourmets feel is far superior in taste and consistency to commercial mayonnaise."

Which leads to the next question:  If two of my favorite recipes are made better by mayo, it is possible they could be made splendid by fresh, homemade mayo? Further, would these recipes be splendid enough to make all that extra effort worthwhile?

I may have to conduct an experiment to find out.  

First, I'll need a good recipe for mayonnaise. For that, I turn to my favorite Food Network chef and alchemist, Alton Brown.  Following is a recipe of Alton's from the Food Network.  A word of caution before you embark on this endeavor -- use the freshest, most disease-free eggs you can find when you make your own mayonnaise. Uncooked substances like egg yolks in mayo can have lots of nasty gastrointestinal side-effects.


* 1 egg yolk*
* 1/2 teaspoon fine salt
* 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
* 2 pinches sugar
* 2 teaspoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
* 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
* 1 cup oil, safflower or corn


In a glass bowl, whisk together egg yolk and dry ingredients. Combine lemon juice and vinegar in a separate bowl then thoroughly whisk half into the yolk mixture. Start whisking briskly, then start adding the oil a few drops at a time until the liquid seems to thicken and lighten a bit, (which means you've got an emulsion on your hands). Once you reach that point you can relax your arm a little (but just a little) and increase the oil flow to a constant (albeit thin) stream. Once half of the oil is in add the rest of the lemon juice mixture.

Continue whisking until all of the oil is incorporated. Leave at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours then refrigerate for up to 1 week.

Mayonnaise is the base of a lot of great sauces, I hear.  Once you've mastered this recipe, try adding herbs to the finished product - such as tarragon or fresh basil.  Or mix it with chipotle sauce or zesty mustard.  You might come up with a new twist on an old favorite that forever (or at least for lunch) changes the way you look at baloney sandwiches.  

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Friday, December 05, 2008

There Must be 50 Ways to Leave the Caveman

The Martin Ad Agency has earned acclaim among peers and audiences for its clever caveman ad campaign for Geico Insurance. I am not sure why these things come to me every night at sleepytime, but as I lay there staring at the ceiling last night, it occurred to me that the Martin agency has done something unusual. They've not only succeeded in entertaining millions with their caveman commercial series, but they've also managed to develop a distinctly different, second brand for Geico. Not one, but two, brands -- the caveman and the gecko. It seems odd that two such distinct brand identities can exist in one corporate universe without disrupting some laws of levity, or sanity, and causing the whole galloping sideshow to collapse upon itself. Perhaps that's what's on the horizon.

I recently had a conversation about the Geico commercials with a guy who's somewhat more enlightened than a caveman. He said he wished they'd change the current caveman storyline. The caveman, or cave-fellows, need to do something more than encounter a Geico sign and exit, stage left. I agree. The formula is wearing thin: Caveman in an enviable situation. Sees something with "Geico" on it. Leaves scene in disgust. How many different ways can they tell the same story? And what, again, is that supposed to tell us about Geico?

I wonder if the Martin agency hasn't lost some of the purpose and opportunity in advertising with this series. Isn't it now too subtle a storyline for the insurance company...especially since the commercials themselves have taken on a life of their own (as evidenced by the multiple spin-offs and TV series)? And, how many folks understood the concept in the first place? I don't know a single caveman who would leave a vacation with a bakini-clad girl on the beach for the sake of a Geco sign.

These midnight questions led to still others before a short intermission in which my brain's right hemisphere entertained the rest of me with what it remembered of a Paul Simon song. And then I was back to solving the problems of the advertising world again.

What's next for Geico? Product launches with Geico gecko dolls wearing T-shirts with cavemen printed on the back? Bobble-head caveman for dashboards?

What will the good folks at the Martin agency think of next? We're fast-approaching the mother-of-all-ad-venues, the Super Bowl. It's a special time of year for ad firms -- and oh, people, I think we're in for a real treat this year. Just think of all the companies who are fresh from the bank with their bailout checks and have something important to say to YOU! But I digress.

If I were Geico, I'd insist on something new this Super Bowl (let's pretend that decision hasn't already been made). Keep the caveman, if you must, but have him run to a phone booth and put on a Superman costume when he sees the Geico banner flying across the sky. Better yet, why not dump the caveman all together and just stick with the gecko?

In my 18 years as a professional writer, I've certainly seen my share of creative stagnation. I understand the inevitable outcome of a creative or writing team's overexposure to a subject. If you've followed any long-running shows (sitcoms, Saturday Night Live), you might have noticed that what often starts out as a terribly funny show ends up, after a while, being terrible. SNL has had some remarkable seasons, and some lousy ones. Pink slips are bound to follow a season of un-funny writing.

It's a sad truth about our business. When creative minds (writers included) are chained down to one desk or one particular subject for too long, they languish. Inspiration wanes. Quality suffers. Audiences tune out. In order to produce relevant, fresh material, creative talent needs freedom, and food, and sunlight. There are solutions for reviving a staff that's grown weary of its subject matter, of course, but I'll save those thoughts for another (bed) time.

Some firms get it. They're the ones with some of the best creative talent in America. I had the privilege of meeting David Fowler, a creative genius at Ogilvy and Mather about four years ago when he was on the brink of launching a new campaign for the soft drink Fanta. It was terrific four years ago...and it's still going strong today. I watched a new Fanta ad the other day and marveled at how his idea and ad campaign have evolved...unlike the caveman.

I strongly suspect that focus groups across the country continue to elicit the Geico response when testers toss out the words "caveman" and "gecko". But that doesn't mean that the insurance company shouldn't make a new plan, Stan. Geico knows a good creative firm and a good ad campaign when it sees one. The question is, does Geico know the end of a good campaign when it sees one?

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Monday, December 01, 2008

More On Old-School Journalism and Dying Competition

My longtime friend Cathy Scott, who is a journalist, college professor, and acclaimed author (check out her latest book, Pawprints of Katrina, on wrote a good blog today -- a not-so-distant look back at competitive news coverage.

Cathy and I worked together at the Vista Press, a newspaper in North San Diego County (California) during the good old days when I was fresh out of college and full of piss and vinegar about print news reporting.  

In her blog, she wrote about a conversation we had on Twitter about the competitive spirit of our newsroom.  "The 50-year-old Vista Press (a now-closed daily paper owned by Andrews McMeel Universal) was in direct competition with the San Diego Union's North County edition.  The Union was huge by comparison. Still....we scooped the SD Union on a regular basis," Cathy wrote.

Indeed, we proved that a small paper could run circles around a major metro because we had a great, competitive staff and a lot of competition in the market...and that drives excellence.

We had a small staff at the Vista Press, and as managing editor I had an enormous amount of responsibility (at the tender age of 22).  I made some mistakes, sure, but damn if I didn't have fun making them.  

I was less concerned about the business bottom line and more concerned about the news, and I often upset the sacred balance between circulation, the ad department and the newsroom.  I was 100-percent news -- that's what they hired me to do.  I fought for my reporters, for their stories, and for the benefit of our readers.  I wasn't afraid to hold the presses for a good scoop or a great crime beat story that broke at deadline, and the circulation department and my publisher didn't like me for doing it. We may have lost some money, but we gained a heck of a lot of experience, and we all went on to bigger and better things, as Cathy said in her blog.

Cathy was a terrific colleague.  I worked late into the night most nights, writing, editing, supervising the paste-up room and putting the paper to bed.  Many of those nights Cathy was there with me, pounding away at the keyboard and listening to the police scanner.  It would come as no surprise to me if I had learned that she had a scanner on her bedside table instead of a clock radio.  She truly cared about her work, often insisting that she could chase a good scanner call down at 10 p.m. and turn it into a last-minute addition to the next day's paper.  She had a sense of urgency about the news, about covering the crime beat better than our competitors, about learning more and doing more.  Bottom line -- she hustled.  Reporters like Cathy were hard to find then, and harder to find today.  I was lucky.  I had more than one of them on staff.  

Aside from Cathy, we had bright young stars like Leslie Hueholt -- an impeccable writer who started as an intern at the paper and went on to become a full-time reporter.  I was always grateful for her copy, because it was so fun to read and so easy to edit.  

Russell Klika was a rockstar photographer and we couldn't wait to see what he brought out of the darkroom every day.  We also had a salty-dog sports editor who peppered his office with profanities on deadline and gave us hours of free entertainment with his hilarious running commentary when he was fresh back from a high school football game or some other dubious adventure in the bowling alley next door, perhaps.

Those were the days, fer shure.  

As Cathy said, "North San Diego County was a fertile training ground for us.  We worked our tails off, learned to crunch on deadline and also felt the sense of accomplishment with the occasional scoop over our seemingly giant neighbor, the SD Union.  It was David and Goliath, and occasionally David won."

It makes me sad to think that in the end David died, because so did the spirit of competition, for the most part -- there, and in a host of other similar markets that lost competing papers. Because when Goliath runs the town, too few print reporters are inspired to get off their butts and beat the pants off of another reporter.

If you want to read more about my conversation with Cathy, check out her blog and the comments at the bottom.  

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What was the question, again?

To popcorn, or not to popcorn, that is the question; 

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
the slings and arrows of outrageous butter.  
Or to take arms against a sea of salt.  
And by opposing, eat it.  To eat, to sleep; 
No more, and by a sleep to say we eat 
The butter and the thousand natural flavors 
That popcorn is heir to -- 'tis a consumption 
Devoutly to be wish'd. 
To eat, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream about eating.  Ay, where's the butter tub?
For in that sleep-eating what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this aluminum foil,
Must give us pause.  There's also the respect
That makes calamity of so long an Orville shelf-life,
for who would bear the whipped butter and corns of time,
Th'Redenbacher's wrong, the proud man's Jiffy Pop,
The pangs of popcorn's love, the pop's delay,
The insolence of burnt office popcorn, and the spurns
That patient merit of the'unworthy kernel,
When the popping itself might its quietus make
In a beeping microwave? Who would kernels bear,
To crack and break under a weary crown
But that the dread of something like the dentist
The undiscovered malpractitioner from whose chair
No patient returns, puzzles the bill,
And makes us rather bear those teeth we have
Than implant others that we know not of?
Thus dentists do make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of New Year's resolutionaries
are sickled o'er with the pale cast of popcorn
And enterprises of jiffy pops and margarine
With this regard their napkins turn dirty,
And lose the name of hungry.

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