Q&A with Amy Seeley, communications coordinator at Autism Society of N.C.

Amy Seeley is communications coordinator at the Autism Society of North Carolina. Prior to taking that job, she worked as a copy editor and page designer at North Carolina newspapers, including The News & Observer in Raleigh and the Star News in Wilmington. She was editor of two of the N&O’s community newspapers, Midtown Raleigh News and North Raleigh News. In this interview, conducted by email, Seeley talks about her new job and the transition from newspapers.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical workday like?

A. I am part of the three-person communications department of the Autism Society of North Carolina, a nonprofit that has about 1,000 employees serving individuals with autism and their families across the state. My main focus is on editing and writing stories. I have a co-worker whose focus is design, and we report to the director of communications.

Obviously, with such a small department, we all do a little bit of everything. I feel like it is kind of an unusual communications job, because we have several audiences.

Many people probably think our big focus is on “awareness,” teaching the community about autism. That’s part of what we do, but our main audience is individuals with autism and their families, because if they don’t know what the Autism Society does, they won’t come to us for help. And of course, we do have the PR component, which we used to sneer at in the newsroom. But I have to say, asking for money and bragging about the good work of your organization doesn’t feel bad when it’s for a cause like autism!

Right now we are really focused on publicizing our Run/Walk for Autism fundraisers around the state – Raleigh’s is the last on Oct. 12. For each of them, I have looked for and written compelling local stories of how we as an organization have helped families.

These have been one of the most rewarding parts of my job so far, and also the hardest. As the mom of a son with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a hard time hearing some of the stories of what families go through.

We then put those on our blog so our families can read them and promoted them to targeted local media through emails. Besides the stories, I am writing basic press releases as you would expect and editing emails that go out to participants. I also work closely with the development department to edit grant applications so we can keep adding sources of funding.

At the same time, we are in a period of expansion, adding services and coverage areas, so that means brochures need to be redone, pages added to the website, promotional fliers created, etc. Much of that work means I receive content from other departments, and I need to edit it to varying degrees; sometimes it just needs a few commas, and sometimes I need to rework it so people outside of the service professions will understand it. I am also the editor for our twice-yearly magazine, monthly email newsletters and an end-of-camp magazine, all of which are for our families.

So in a typical day, I might interview a parent, write a story about them, edit material from a co-worker, update our website, set up Tweets and edit a grant application. I am often working across multiple platforms, but it all amounts to one thing: making sure families know how we can help them.

Q. How does the Autism Society use social media to get its message out?

A. We have a Facebook fan page, where our designer posts almost every day, doing a great job of adding images to content to attract attention. We also have an active group page and use Facebook event pages for major events. We also post to Instagram and Pinterest, but not as often. Last spring, they did a PSA campaign on YouTube for Autism Awareness Month.

I set up most of the Twitter posts in advance, using it to highlight not just upcoming events around the state, but longstanding services that we offer, with links to our website. We gain several followers every day, and I want to make sure they know all the ways we can help.

Recently I’ve been experimenting with seeking Retweets for our Triangle race from influencers; people have been mostly willing to help us out. We also use Twitter to link to autism news.

We also have a blog, as I mentioned, where we share news about our organization as well as informative articles written by our staff members for families.

Q. Before taking this job earlier this year, you worked at newspapers for nearly 20 years. What skills were you able to take with you, and what did you have to learn anew?

I think the most important skills I brought to my new job were news judgment and storytelling capabilities. Just as at the paper we were always talking about how to get people to keep reading, one of my focuses here is how to get people’s attention.

We need families to hear our message so we can help them, and we need others to hear it so they might donate to help us continue our work. A compelling story pulls people in, no matter where they read it. (And it doesn’t hurt that I have some idea of what an editor might be looking for in a story pitch!)

Having been a copy editor, designer and community paper editor, I also had plenty of organization skills and practice at overseeing an entire operation as I shepherded projects through to completion. Of course, here we do not have projects every day!

And that brings me to skills I needed to learn and am still working on. Outside of newspapers, organizations have more time, and more people want to have a hand in projects. I am still getting a feel for the coordination that is necessary to keep things moving but still involve everyone the way that they want to be involved.

Q. Other newspaper reporters and editors may be looking for a similar transition. What advice do you have for mid-career journalists who are considering that change?

A. Many of the skills that journalists have are in demand. We are deadline-oriented, adaptable, technologically savvy and knowledgeable about many topics. Plus, we have strong writing and editing skills.

I would say to make sure you focus on skills rather than projects. When I was a newspaper designer, I used a portfolio to apply for new jobs. When I wanted to work outside of journalism, I needed to sell myself more than my work. (But it obviously depends on the job.) I would also recommend taking development courses in areas that might apply to jobs you’d like, especially for technology. It shows commitment as well as adding to your skills.

But most importantly, I would say to find your passion. In the newsroom, we were all united for a common cause: putting together the best product we could. By midnight.

Make sure when you are looking at a new position, you will be working on a topic in which you have interest, because the in-the-trenches-together camaraderie won’t be there. You probably won’t have a daily deadline, and you probably won’t have people cursing you out, and you probably won’t be under threat of layoffs together. You’re going to need something else to make it worthwhile.

For some, the paycheck might be enough. Just make sure you know whether you are one of those people.