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.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

One more in the name of love: I've got 3 little words for you on Saturday

This one's for you, Mr. Mitchem. Good luck with your lovely experiment.

I was talking about marriage with some friends the other day. About the ups and downs, and how miserable the downs are. It's remarkable how fast, and how easily, things can go wrong in a relationship, or a household.

Stop paying attention for just an instant, and things start to unwind. It's usually when you're busy looking the other direction, or tending to your own concerns, that your house falls apart. And there's a mighty fine line between feeling good and grounded... and feeling isolated and alone. I feel tired and defeated when my house isn't in order. I get steamrolled when my relationships are on shaky ground.

When I lose that connection to the person I count on the most, I turn to my friends -- a supportive community of peers who will acknowledge the hard work and sacrifices I've made to uphold my end of the commitment. I say, "I've worked hard, damnit." And they say, "We know. You're a good sport. We love you."

Isn't it true, though? When times are tough, people seek the safety and reassurance of community, whether it's friends, or coworkers, or social networks like Twitter.

It is so easy to lose faith in someone you believe in. So easy to question someone's integrity or doubt their motivations, especially when there's a commitment involved. It's good to have friends then. It's good to have community. But there's nothing greater than those remarkable times when life, or relationships, stop careening towards a brick wall and turn, instead, for the better. When someone shows a sign of hope and gives you a reason to believe again.

When you commit to something -- when you put your faith in a person, or a cause, or an organization, regardless of how angry or disillusioned you might be, you want to keep that commitment.

You can lie to me, but you can't lie to yourself: even when you're halfway out the door, there's a part of you that's still inside the place looking around for a sign of hope. I don't care how successful you are, or how tough you are, or how important you feel. You want a reason to believe. You want a reason to stick around. We all do.

So here's a little secret to success for you: It's easier to maintain a house along the way. Putting your life back together after it's fallen apart is a lot of work. Either way it's worth it, because I know I'm at my best and most confident when my house is in order. When my relationships are strong.

Make it easy on yourself. Invest in your most important relationships. Be there for the people who count on you, even if it's inconvenient. Pay it forward every once in a while and pay attention to the results. You'll make someone happy. You'll strengthen a relationship. And you'll feel good, too. You've got to drop a seed of hope along the way. It doesn't take a lot of effort to drop a seed, and it makes a difference.

On Saturday, I'm asking you to drop a seed of hope.

My Twitter accomplice from Smash Communications, Jim Mitchem, wrote a moving blog entry about love this week.

Jim asked us to use the bull-horn of social media to say "I love you" on Saturday, April 4, to everyone in our virtual worlds.
They're real people, you know. Three little words, with no name at the beginning or end. Say, "I love you" to the universe. Drop a seed. What do you have to lose?

On Saturday, I'm going to say "I love you". I might even say it more than once. Won't you join me?

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Photos of the places where my mind will drift

If you want to know what makes my heart ache, this about sums it up.

I have my own versions of some of these photos, and videos from some of the same locations. Every time I visit Cornwall, I have a deeper desire to stay. And every time I leave, I feel as though I've left myself behind. Invariably I try to bring bits and pieces of England home with me -- photos, food, sand, pebbles, wood, music, clothes, toys, friends.

But it's impossible to surround yourself with something you love so much without actually being there. Seeing these particular selections through someone else's lens, though, adds indescribable richness and depth to the etches, tones and hues of my own recollections of the place.

These pictures remind me that the villages and towans and beaches where the other part of me lives really do exist. The clock ticks here, and time passes there. Hayle exists beyond my imagination. These photos are someone else's proof of it. And the place is as beautiful to them as it is to me.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Charlie Takes it on the Chin

I dislike rude awakenings, in any form.  The other day I caught a glance of myself (or rather my side-self) on film, and I was astonished to discover that the lower half of my face has been swept away by some sort of turbo-mandibular landslide. In fact, my chin has almost completely disappeared into my neck.

At first I thought that lump in my throat was a sentimental thing that comes along with motherhood. Nope. It's the jawbone in my esophagus.

I've apparently inherited the jowls of an old British man, which explains a lot because my ancestors are from the U.K. (they're English, Irish, and Scottish).
 There's a dash of German in there somewhere, but my brother got all of that because there's enough real estate below his mouth to support both a chin and a cleft.

 Scientists may have formulated theories about the receding hairline, but what of the disappearing jaw? What would Charles Darwin have said about the receding chin? Would he have compared it to the early hominid tailbone and proclaimed it unnecessary after 5,000 years? What the hell kind of evolutionary feature is that?

What I really want to know is, why do so many British people have weak chins, and why did I have to inherit one?

Did my ancestors' facial muscles so repeatedly contort from snorting and saying "Wuhl, oy deunt know" that the entire bottom half of their faces finally caved in? Maybe they thought it was better to "keep a stiff upper lip" than to heed the advice to "chin up". Regardless, someone should have realized that if they kept doing that to their faces, they'd eventually get stuck that way.

I always assumed that my British grandmother's mouth was agape because of something I said. Now I realize it was just a flat jaw. I won't stand for it, I tell you. I don't want to evolve. I want my jawline back. 

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Another reason why I love Twitter...and Chris Blake

This is what you get when you cross "Secret Tweet" with the tremendous talent of Chris Blake. He's another one of those guys who could sing the names in a phone book and make it sound beautiful. Secret Tweet is a Twitter-like application that people can use to type totally anonymous, secret thoughts. Someone set a hand-full of those secret tweets to Chris's music and wound up with this unforgettable, poignant work of art. Take a look. (P.S. People with heart conditions: side-effects of a dose of this include tears and goose-bumps.)

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

You Say "Tomato" and I Say, "Oof! My back!"

escalade by ~poivre on deviantART

Sunday, March 15, 2009

What would you get if you crossed the Pillsbury Dough Boy with a blimp?

Answer: Something like this Lockheed-Martin "Skunk Works" airship. Very cool. Know how it lands? Suction. Check it out!

It's officially called the Lockheed-Martin “Skunk Works” P-791 LTA hybrid heavy lifter with an air-cushion landing system (ACLS) to firmly connect the airship to the ground in suction mode. This might answer many a UFO question.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

TED video on Twitter...have you seen it?

Twitter on TED:

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Why I love Austin, Texas: Local Artists, Local News, and Local South by Southwest (SXSW)

Austin's News 8 highlighted musician Suzanna Choffel this morning as part of the station's regular "On the Rooftop" live music series. Suzanna played an acoustic version of her song "Hold of the Night", which is a lovely song. If you're in Austin for SXSW, I believe you can catch her on Saturday night at Momo's around 10 p.m. 

Unfortunately, it looks like you can't purchase this song or her latest release on iTunes, but you'll find her previous work, Shudders and Rings, there.  You can listen to more of her music on Suzanna's MySpace Music page.  And, you can also watch the video below (live at the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar), but you'll hear some guy talking during part of the performance.

News 8 is a quirky all-news channel (very Austin) run by Time Warner Cable. The 24-hour news channel boasts a terrific little team of creative professionals who are willing to bend the rules of traditional reporting to bring viewers entertaining (often funny), upbeat and positive Central Texas news. Rarely do you find a 24-hour news channel that delivers child-friendly news a majority of the time, and that appeals to News 8's target market (think me). Yet their reporters aren't afraid to get down and dirty with investigative work, either.

Other things that make News 8 cool? For starters, their chief meteorologist, Burton Fitzsimmons, is one most cheerful weather guys I think I've ever seen. One of my favorite reporters, though, is Bob Robuck, who was an anchor in Dallas years ago before changing careers. Last year during an interview (he interviewed me, but I, a former journalist, had to interview him, too), Mr. Robuck told me that he realized during his news hiatus that his heart was in broadcast journalism, so he moved to Austin and joined the News 8 team. They're lucky to have him.

Check out News 8's Rooftop Music series -- lots of familiar names on the list, and the links should take you to short clips of live, single-song performances by the artists.

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One billboard; too much spare time

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Move along folks; nothing to read here

I was all set to write something clever here, but something silly sucked the wind (ahem) out of my sails.

I stumbled across a blog written by some delightfully cantankerous person who calls herself "Weaselrina." In this particular entry, she documented, with photos, a rough day of shopping that started with sausage and ended up at the A&P. I would've loved to have been standing next to her when she took those photos. I'm not saying that I can be reduced to guffaws by all such humor. It could be the loss of that precious hour of sleep last night.

You be the judge: What drugs is the guy at the A & P on?

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Monday, March 02, 2009

Four Public Servants and Three Hours on a Tuesday: one of the most rewarding panels I've ever moderated

While the rest of the nation was watching President Obama's State of the Union speech last week, I was moderating a rare and powerful panel discussion on the importance of public relations in government at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas. 

I coordinated the evening's discussion for the benefit of my public relations class and other university students. The panel was awe-inspiring: a member of the Texas House of Representatives, a U.S. Attorney, a Texas Supreme Court Justice and an Ambassador to the United Nations for Economic and Social Policy. That these four sacrificed their time on Tuesday night, when millions of others were focused on the State of the Union, or work, or their families, spoke volumes about their hearts and passion for education.

One panelist had an additional challenge - she's a state legislator. In Texas, the state legislature meets for 140 days every other year, and our biennial legislative session is currently underway. Dr. Diane Patrick, a rising star in the Texas House of Representatives (from Arlington), set aside her busy legislative schedule, a committee meeting, and time with her family to join us. Rep. Patrick serves on the Texas Public and Higher Education Committee (among others) and her background is one of educator and community activist. Before she was elected to the Texas House of Representatives, she was a college professor at UT-Arlington.

By day, Supreme Court Justice Don Willett is immersed in researching, writing opinions, and communicating with judges, attorneys, clerks, staff, and folks who are impacted by appellate cases that reach the state supreme court. He is also a busy family man -- father of two with a third on the way. U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton's district covers 93,000 square miles of Texas, from Brenham (east of Austin) to El Paso, including Austin and San Antonio. His communications tasks are enormous; he oversees 140 prosecutors who handle thousands of cases.  As for my guest the Ambassador, I could fill the rest of this blog with a list of his responsibilities and communications.

Rep. Patrick explained the complexities of communicating with constituents, lawmakers, legislative staffers, government officials, etc., and of separating legislative communications from political communications. She answers most of her 500 daily e-mails herself and her staff takes scores of calls a day.

Her office produces an electronic newsletter every 2 weeks to keep constituents informed about legislative issues, including the 6,000 bills that will be run through the legislature this session.  Rep. Patrick said her legislative job is to help people solve problems; and a top priority is informing and educating her audiences (which can be a challenge; many voters couldn't tell you whether their representatives work in Austin or Washington, D.C.).

We discussed the unique communication challenges of the judicial branch: judges must hold themselves above the fray, must be impartial and non-political (even though Texas judges are elected), and must follow legal and ethical standards that are far more strident than any other branch.  Justice Willett told students that one tough part of the job is setting aside personal feelings or values to issue rulings that uphold the rule of law. 

He admitted there were times he has been personally opposed to an opinion that he was bound by a higher calling as judge to write in favor of. "The law isn't wet clay that you can mold," he said. It's interesting to think about public service demanding personal sacrifice in this way, and in this branch of government. I can't help but admire people with the strength of character to defend the Constitution and the rule of law against a multitude of influences, including one's own conscience.

These public servants have the added task of communicating about emotionally-charged issues with passionate people from every walk of life. Anyone who's ever tangled with an angry mom knows that it's just about as dangerous to take on an emotional 40-year-old woman with children as it is to corner a grizzly bear with a den of cubs. Put that in a courtroom, and you've got what Johnny Sutton does for a living. If a case goes badly, there's a family involved who's going to want to know why.

A sobering moment for me was when Sutton, who prosecutes cyber-crime, pornography, and sex offenses (among other federal crimes), warned my students to be careful when they're online. He recounted a chilling story about a case in Dallas in which a small "mom and pop" organization had 70,000 subscribers to its child pornography Web site (which brought in about $25 million a year).  Roughly 1 in 7 children are preyed upon when they're online in the safety of their own homes. As great of a tool the Internet might be, it is still a dangerous place for unsupervised children.  So parents, put your computers in a centrally located room, like the living room, where kids can be supervised online.

The Ambassador discussed government's duty to be a "Democracy of Deeds" and obligation to report how those deeds are being carried out.  He praised the effort to create, which anyone can visit to see how federal money is being spent.  It's a great first step for a government that moves very slowly (a source of both security and frustration).  But governments generally lag behind in this world which grows more connected by the hour. As I write this, borders are erased as new global communities are formed in another dimension, which is as real to many as the guy you bumped into in the hallway this morning.

Government benefits from the Internet and its countless powerful and emerging tools for communicating and organizing constituencies. Citizens mobilize online to help countless causes and non-profits. And the more we Tweet or book Facebook time around the world, the more able we will be to make our own decisions about our counterparts on other continents (who are remarkably similar to you and me, it turns out).

The Ambassador said these tremendous movements and interesting financial times have produced a greater demand for transparency, honesty, and accuracy in government communications. People want to know more. They expect more from the institutions that receive tax dollars (and the schools that receive tuition checks). Our country's actions should align with our ideals. People want to know what's being done: where, when, and how much it cost us. And people want to know their voices are being heard. 

The panelists answered thoughtful questions about the constraints of communicating in their unique jobs, balancing personal values with sworn duties, and public service as a career choice. They left my students with a challenge to never stop seeking truth.  They encouraged students to analyze and research ideas; to consider many news sources and read opposing viewpoints.  One student asked Mr. Sutton how to become a better communicator.  He said, "Be yourself."  He's right. The rest will follow.

Our discussion was scheduled to conclude in an hour. All four panelists stayed past 9 p.m. (the two-hour mark), and Justice Willett and Mr. Sutton stayed for the entire three-hour class. They answered every last question and offered to be a resource to any of the students who might have additional questions about public service.

I've been marveling about this panel, and all the knowledge it imparted.  Collectively, the speakers represented about 100 years of noteworthy public service. I was moved by the magnanimity of that moment -- by the rare and candid, heartfelt discussion. My students have no idea how lucky they were to have the undivided attention of four spectacularly kind, intelligent, and passionate public servants for three hours on a Tuesday night. But they will someday.

Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1955) said, "Public service must be more than doing a job efficiently and honestly. It must be a complete dedication to the people and to the nation with full recognition that every human being is entitled to courtesy and consideration, that constructive criticism is not only to be expected but sought, that smears are not only to be expected but fought, that honor is to be earned, not bought.”


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