When the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal broke at Penn State this fall, hundreds of university supporters and critics turned to the school’s Facebook page. Laurie Creasy kept them civil. Working in social media may seem like a young person’s game, but Creasy, now 58, has recently turned it into her second act career.
A former newspaper copy editor, Creasy never imagined working on the public Web face of a university roiled by news that captured a nation: the arrest of assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, the firing of legendary coach Joe Paterno, and Paterno’s subsequent death from cancer. But as a new media specialist for Penn State, Creasy spent days — and more than a few late nights — policing the school’s Facebook page. Her group’s efforts have already been lauded by social media and journalism experts
as a prime example of open and informative crisis communication.
“If someone posted something that was out and out flagrantly wrong, we responded,” Creasy says. “Otherwise, we let them take the conversation. That’s what social media is supposed to be about.”
Creasy’s journey to the forefront of online communication practices involved a number of turns. After graduating from Penn State in 1977, she worked for a small Pennsylvania newspaper then spent most of the 1980s as a text editor with the National Captioning Institute in Washington. She returned to Pennsylvania to care for her ill father, then her widowed mother, working mostly freelance jobs for almost 15 years. Creasy also battled her own health scare, which wiped out her retirement savings.
Her last job before moving into the Internet age was as a copy editor for the Star-Tribune in Casper, Wyo., where she says the computers were “almost old enough to vote.” The landscape was stunning. The paycheck wasn’t: less than $20,000 a year. From 2005 to 2007, she watched the paper shrink while the Web grew, and wondered if maybe it wasn’t time for another change.
Creasy could see that the Web represented the future. “But I didn’t know quite how I would go about getting in on it,” she says.
Her best friend, a computer programmer, talked with Creasy about ideas like usability testing and design — the layout, content and navigability of websites. “I could do that,” Creasy thought. But she knew she needed more education.
So 30 years after graduating from college, Creasy left Wyoming and started graduate school at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., where she earned a master’s in Human-Computer Interaction — the nuts and bolts of online communication.
Friends and relatives told her she was crazy.
But Creasy saw an advantage in leaving graduate school saddled with debt. With no job, retirement fund or family to fall back on, she had no choice but to succeed.
Of course, there was a more obvious advantage to going out on a limb: When it came time to look for a job in her new field, she could tell employers that she had devoted a year to developing useful skills that would pay off for them.
Less than three months after graduation, in 2008, Creasy landed a job as Web editor with the American Friends Service Committee, also know as the Quakers, in Philadelphia. (Creasy is herself a practicing Quaker.) Within six months, she doubled the organization’s Facebook and Twitter followings.
But when the economy collapsed in 2009, the organization lost millions that it had invested with Lehman Brothers — and Creasy lost her job.
Within months, she was hired by Penn State. Although Creasy says it helped that she’s a Penn State graduate, having quantifiable success in the then-nascent field of social media made her a compelling candidate. Creasy won’t say how much she makes today, but one can assume it’s definitely more than she earned at the newspaper in Wyoming. In fact, she’s doing so well that once again she has a retirement fund.
Creasy attributes her success partly to good timing. When she finished her graduate studies, few people understood social media very well. “Now, a lot of people have that experience, so I think it would be much harder,” she says.
She sees her age and prior work experience as benefits for prospective employers. “They look at me and they see someone who is not going to leave in a year and a half to get a better job,” she says.
Stubbornness and a contrarian nature contributed to Casey’s successful transition. “Whenever someone says to me: ‘You can’t do that,’ my brain says: ‘What do you mean I can’t do that? Of course I can!’”
Creasy, who writes romantic fiction in her spare time, views social media not as a scary new technology but as an old-fashioned writing challenge. In her eyes, a 600-word press release or a 140-character Tweet are essentially the same thing: words.
Despite her moments of fear and anxiety in the past five years, she says she wouldn’t have changed a thing. “I really surprised myself,” Creasy says. “But you know, that’s the best person to surprise.”
Creasy offers midlife career changers these four tips:
Have a specific goal. “I’m bored and so I’m going to do something different” doesn’t cut it, she says. “Ask yourself: ‘What are my interests outside of work, and can I turn any of them into jobs?’ You really have to be creative.”
Pursue higher education. “If returning to college will enhance your working life, then I’d say go back and do it.”
Don’t let age stop you. The economy is tough for everyone. “I think finding work is difficult for people coming out of college too,” she says. Focus on what your experience can bring to new employers.
Believe you can do it. When someone says you won’t find a new job, or get into school, let that drive you to succeed. For Creasy, it all boils for to this: “You have to have confidence in yourself.”
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