Yolanda Fernandez: Working on the other side of the camera

BY SHAWN AVERY SPEAGLE, USF Student Journalist

ST. PETERSBURG – Yolanda Fernandez’s worst day on the job began one night at 1 a.m.

A man had dropped his five-year-old daughter off a bridge to her death, St. Petersburg police said, and they needed her to handle what would become an avalanche of news media inquiries.

When the call came, Fernandez said, she jumped out of bed, dressed and rushed to the police station.

As the department’s spokeswoman, she had to verify the facts so she knew what to share with reporters without jeopardizing the investigation. She had to field inquiries about the death of little Phoebe Jonchuck from as far away as New York and Los Angeles.

“I was working for a day and a half straight before I was able to go home and sleep,” said Fernandez, 53. “I had a new appreciation for officers that work crazy hours.”

Yolanda Fernandez at work, featuredShe had been on the job for only eight months.

Fernandez already knew a lot about deadlines and the news media since she had been a television reporter and news anchor for 30 years, the last 25 at WFLA-News Channel 8.

That’s one of the reasons St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman hired her in May 2014 to be spokeswoman and community awareness manager for the police department.

“During my years as a news anchor, I had dealt with police agencies,” Fernandez said. “I know the ins and outs of both the media and the police.”

But many St. Petersburg officers – who generally view reporters with skepticism – were dubious.

“Officers were wary of her at first, including myself,” said Rick Shaw, a 33-year veteran who now works alongside Fernandez as a civilian in the public information office.

But he grew to respect her, he said, as he watched her handle the crush of responsibilities after the little girl was dropped off the Dick Misener Bridge at 12:10 a.m. on Jan. 8, 2015.

Since then he has seen her deal with the media, prep officers on how to respond to reporters and use social media to spread positives about the department “that have never gotten out before.”

Police Chief Anthony Holloway, who was hired shortly after Fernandez’s arrival, said she has helped improve the department’s image and the sometimes uneasy relationship between police and the media.

“She has continuously helped me understand the media and its importance,” he said, “and the officers here owe her quite a bit of gratitude.”

Fernandez said she left News Channel 8 so she could take charge of her next step in life.

Anchor Gayle Sierens was the only woman older than she in the newsroom, and Fernandez – a former Miss Alabama and third runner-up in the 1982 Miss America pageant – assumed she might eventually be replaced by someone younger.

“Women have more pressure in the work force, especially when dealing with television,” she said. “Physical appearance is stressed more for women than men.”

So when Kriseman offered her the police job – which now pays $96,000 a year – she welcomed the change.

In recent years, the department’s public information office had been staffed by men who were retired police officers, so Fernandez became a trailblazer with a different perspective on things.

Fernandez said she coaches officers on dealing with the media and tries to help reporters get the information they need without too much difficulty on either side.

“It is better to have someone else deal with the media,” she said. “Let the officers focus on their jobs while I handle how they are portrayed in the media.”

Fernandez also has revamped the department’s social media accounts.

Before she arrived, she said, the department’s Facebook account had less than a thousand friends. Now it has about 20,000. The department’s Twitter account has over 7,000 followers, and Fernandez hopes to have about 10,000 by the end of the year.

Through social media, Fernandez puts out information that won’t make the 6 o’clock news, especially positive moments about police that people usually don’t see.

She said she is especially proud of her campaign on public safety, which featured a video about one of the department’s bomb squad dogs. The video was so popular online that news stations throughout Florida used it.

Fernandez said she always has “raw (video) footage” of events available for news media pickup. “My office has to understand what the media needs and how the media can help the department,” she said.

She said she sees major opportunities online for people who want to send tips and information to police without being seen.

Social media also helps the department keep up to date and relevant with younger people, she said.

“We have to be in touch with young people and show them that officers shouldn’t be associated with just bad news,” Fernandez said.  “They are human, too, and do a lot of good in the community.”

Fernandez grew up in north Pinellas and graduated from Troy State University in Alabama. She has been married for 30 years to John Walker, an assistant to the deans at Clearwater Central Catholic High School.

Their 20-year-old son goes to the University of Florida, and their 18-year-old daughter goes to Clearwater Central Catholic and plans to start at UF in the fall.

Shawn Avery Speagle is a student journalist at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

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