Former TV reporter sees other side as St. Petersburg police spokeswoman

A longtime reporter at WFLA is the St. Petersburg Police Department spokeswoman.
Published February 26 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — The young, eager German shepherd had eyes only for the man in black.

As a videographer recorded the scene, the dog leaped over hurdles, ran and chomped down on a short strap and refused to let go.

That's exactly what the dog was supposed to do as the newest member of the St. Petersburg Police Department's canine unit. The man in black was Officer Matt Kirchgraber, the dog's handler and partner.

Nearby, directing the video, was Yolanda Fernandez, the department's new community awareness manager and spokeswoman.

Kirchgraber is one example of the dedicated officers in the department, Fernandez said, and it's her job to showcase them so that the public sees that the 550 sworn officers do "a lot more in the community than arrest people."

Video is nothing new for Fernandez, 52. For 30 years she worked on the other side of the camera as a reporter in television news.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman hired Fernandez for the $90,000 a year job in June to help reshape the image of a department riven by internal tension and an uneasy relationship with some residents, especially in the black community.

Fernandez said her responsibility is clear.

"My job is to make sure that the public has a good image of the excellent people in the Police Department," she said. "I know I need to use creative ways to engage the public."

That's why she started an online weekly video series called Straight From the Chief so police Chief Anthony Holloway can answer questions from the public.

And that's why she and the videographer produced the demonstration of Kirchgraber and his new canine partner. The video, on the department's Facebook page, promoted a contest to name the dog. The winning name was Dan-no, in honor of a friend of Kirchgraber's, whose aspirations to be a police dog handler were dashed by illness.

Fernandez relies on email, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook to help her communicate with reporters and the public.

"It's the way people communicate now," Fernandez said. "Through social media and email we get tips, comments, questions."

Holloway, who became chief two months after Fernandez was hired, said she is rebranding the department.

"She's great. She got us into the 21st century with social media," he said. "She has been right on target with her advice, and quickly and correctly getting information out."

Until being hired by the police department, Fernandez was a reporter at News Channel 8 in Tampa, her home for 25 of her 30 years as a broadcast reporter. Her contract was scheduled to be up in December, she said, and she decided it was a good time for a change.

Fernandez — who was Miss Alabama and third runnerup in the Miss America pageant in 1982 — had concerns about being over 50.

"Women don't age as well on TV as men do," Fernandez said. "That's the way the business is. A 50-year-old man is still in his prime. Add a little gray hair and it makes him more credible. A 50-year-old women is more rare. They can easily hire a young girl out of college with a few years of experience for a lot less money. This was something I knew I was facing."

She said there are a few exceptions, like Gayle Sierens, anchor for News Channel 8. Sierens, 60, who plans to retire in May.

Fernandez said age was one of several things she considered when making her decision to change careers. She said she took into account that work in the news media is becoming more unstable and more demanding.

"The field of journalism is rapidly changing because of the Internet, and it's very competitive," Fernandez said. "Now you have to be prepared to do it all — shoot, write, edit — and it's all about multimedia."

She said the advent of multiple newscasts throughout the day, requiring different angles of the same story, leaves little time for reflection and deeper reporting.

"I was in a high-pressure, deadline-driven job that can be mentally and physically grueling," Fernandez said. "I felt like I had accomplished what I wanted to."

Fernandez grew up in the Tampa Bay area and began her career at Troy State University in Alabama, where she majored in broadcast journalism and music, and minored in French and Spanish. She is fluent in Spanish.

"All of my college expenses were paid for — room, board and tuition — by Miss America and Junior Miss scholarships," Fernandez said. "That's the sole reason I competed."

A visit to the campus radio station with a friend piqued her interest in broadcast journalism. As a veteran of pageants, Fernandez said, she felt at ease in front of a camera.

She held four TV jobs in six years. The first was in Montgomery, Ala., where the studio was in a warehouse. In winter it was so cold "I could see my breath," she said, and in summer it was stifling because the noisy air conditioner had to be turned off.

Asked what surprised her most when she started working on the flip side of reporting, she said that she was "shocked at how much people hate reporters."

"The media's job is to scrutinize and hold people accountable," Fernandez said. "For anyone that has to deal regularly with publicity, it can become a love-hate thing."

Nancy McCann is a reporter in the Neighborhood News Bureau at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Contact her at (727) 420-1199.

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