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.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Now is not the time to skimp on words: what this country needs is strong communicators


Recent reports suggest that many U.S. organizations have reacted to the recession by cutting budgets and employees in their communications, public relations and public affairs divisions -- a decision that stems from a belief, often at the top of an organization, that such areas are non-essential.

Yet during any period of crisis, the opposite is actually true: The greater the crisis, the more vital the need for leaders to engage and communicate with internal and external audiences (employees, shareholders, analysts, consumers, media, opinion leaders, regulatory agencies, governments, and the general public).

Clear, consistent messages promote trust, confidence and loyalty. Perception is a powerful force that can dramatically impact a business bottom line. The leadership of any organization would do well to keep the lines of communication open during any critical decision-making or action-taking process. It’s equally important to relay known facts and decisions as information becomes available.

Experts in marketing and communications point to the benefits of advertising products, sales, money-saving tools and financial services during a recession. One solution to the communication gap -- especially for organizations that have already made budget cuts (and those looking to save money)-- is outsourcing to firms that specialize in communications and public relations.

Small and independent firms have less overhead, and therefore can offer better prices and personalized service. Corporations that bid on government contracts or receive taxpayer dollars earn incentives and win bids when they work with firms that are certified woman-owned, minority-owned, and disadvantaged businesses (WBEs, MBEs, and DBEs).

The pool of talent in small, independent companies continues to grow as highly skilled professionals with subject-matter expertise strike out their own. And contractors cost less than full-time employees in terms of taxes, training, benefits and resources.

I've worked in the field of communications for 18 years, as a print news reporter and editor and a government press aide; as a White House speechwriter and corporate public affairs director of executive communications; and now as a business owner. I have seen the salvationary effect of consistent, honest communication. And I have seen the failure of strategies that call for being forthright only when the law requires people to be.

If outsourcing isn't a viable option, then deploying strong communicators internally must be the alternative. Organizations must focus today on hiring, promoting and developing talent with communication skills throughout the ranks of both leadership and staff.

It boggles the mind that people place more value on a good pair of shoes than they do on the caliber of their words or the content of their Web sites. A good friend at the White House Writers Group once told me that some leading ladies pay their fashion consultants more than their speechwriters. I marvel about what that says about their priorities. So long as they look good, who cares if they sound good? As long as you're keeping up appearances, there's no need to provide much value or substance. Sound familiar? Sound like a few mighty corporations that have fallen of late?

Welcome to the 21st Century. Innovation is reshaping societies and ideas on a global scale, while average folks struggle to make sense of it all. Technology is growing faster than a speeding government, it's more powerful than a local server; it's able to leap entire generations in a single bound. What does it mean? It means, simply, that communicating with people matters more than ever. People want relevant, useful information from organizations and leaders they can trust. Organizations must embrace these values -- change or lose leadership, employees and audiences. History doesn't matter. Size doesn't matter. People with courage, integrity and strong communication skills matter.

A recent report on research, training, and organizational development stated, "As it becomes increasingly difficult to obtain and retain top performers with strong leadership experience, organizations may find their greatest asset -- their workforce -- in jeopardy." The report, which included comments from hundreds of HR professionals and line managers from North America, Europe, Asia-Pacific, Brazil and South Africa, highlighted growing concern about ill-equipped employees who assume higher-level positions due to a lack of available talent. "If businesses continue to ignore the oncoming leadership gap, they may see devastating consequences," the report warned.

A research scientist who worked on this project said, "Companies should be concerned, because poor leadership can have serious top-to-bottom ripple effects, from employee burnout to under-performance of the entire company."


Today, those who strive to communicate (which means both listening and talking) will come out ahead of the competition when the country recovers from this economic downturn.

There’s a message in this madness. Are you willing to listen -- and deliver?

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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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