Q&A with Michelle Moriarty Witt, copy editor turned PIO

Michelle Moriarty Witt is a public information specialist in Mecklenburg County, N.C. Before going into public relations, she was a copy editor at The News & Observer in Raleigh, The Fayetteville Observer and The Duluth News Tribune in Minnesota. She is an active member of the American Copy Editors Society. In this Q&A, Witt discusses her transition from the copy desk to PR.

Q. Describe your job. What’s your typical day?

A. I arrive at work between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. — an unwelcome change from my copy editor hours. I turn on the TV to follow broadcast news and read the newspaper. I look for mentions of the county and the departments I serve in particular, and make sure that stories are accurate. I also look for bigger news that might have local implications. An example of this would be the recent Chinese drywall controversy, which raised questions about how Code Enforcement addresses quality of building materials.

From there, I’ll spend some time writing news releases or editing those of my co-workers. Usually, I have meetings a few times per week, where I trade updates with my “client” departments. These meetings give me the chance to ask questions about programs that have until this point only been described in bureaucratic lingo.

The rest of the time I work on projects such as brochures, fliers and Web site content. I write and edit stories for an employee magazine. I also help arrange news conferences by calling members of the media and assembling talking points.

Q. How has your editing background helped you in your current job?

A. It’s been enormously useful. Beyond the day-to-day writing and editing duties, I serve as an informal consultant for other PIOs on matters of grammar, style and taste. Many of my colleagues are former journalists, but few have an editing background.

I also devote a lot of time to wading through long mumbo-jumbo memos and translating them into plain English for various purposes. So I ask a lot of people with engineering backgrounds the same question I once asked reporters: “What do you mean by this?” Once they boil it down and I get the idea, I can begin to express government-ese in terms that residents can understand.

Q. You have a master’s degree in rhetoric and composition. How have you seen what you learned in graduate school play out in the workplace?

A. My graduate work gave me a greater comfort level and confidence in the use of language because I think more actively about the implications of a particular word. Whether I’m writing a short e-mail to a coworker or a news release on a touchy subject, I’m thinking about how my words might be interpreted.

More importantly, grad school taught me more about dealing with people. Pogoing between students and administrators gave me a greater awareness of how I had to adjust my approach based on my audience. Now I am accountable among my fellow PIOs, the media and the bureaucrats I serve. I have to communicate with each group differently in words, tone and medium to get what I need in order to do my job well. It’s a challenge I’d be less prepared for without a teaching and scholarly background.

Q. What advice do you have for copy editors seeking to move into public relations?

A. I think the biggest task is crafting a resume that isn’t written in newsroom terms for a newsroom audience. People outside newspapers don’t know, and don’t care, what a slot editor is. I’m not even sure they register page design and wire editing. They do care about deadlines, project management, training ability and — the big one — people skills. They also value speaking and writing ability, and they’ll want to know why you want the job. PR people know about the state of the newspaper industry and aren’t unsympathetic, but it helps to have another reason. Does the employer’s mission speak to you? Is the subject matter interesting?

It’s not so much about dismissing everything you’ve done. It’s more about taking what you’ve done and making it look instantly awesome to someone who isn’t familiar with what you do — and making you look instantly adaptable to a new field that, regardless, has many similarities to the old one.

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