August 3, 2012 - Hers was the voice of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC) for more than two years.
As Media Relations Officer, Cst. Suzanne FitzGerald went before the cameras almost daily to talk about robberies, drug busts, accidents, murders and other unfortunate events.
It’s one of the most stressful public relations jobs out there. People want and expect clear, accurate information about incidents from the police. However, only so much can be divulged, and care must be taken not to violate privacy or compromise an investigation.
FitzGerald walked that fine line with grace and precision, often on live TV where there is no opportunity for a “retake.”
There’s no question that FitzGerald was very good at her job – one of the best communicators the force has ever had.
That came to an end just a few weeks ago, when FitzGerald hung up her media hat to assume a new role within the force. Her departure was not unexpected – FitzGerald had committed to a 24-month term, and had put in 27 – but she left the position with mixed feelings.
“It’s bittersweet,” she said, in an interview. “I love the work… I learned a great deal, not just about media relations from a policing perspective but about media in general. It was incredibly eye opening for me and I have encouraged many of my colleagues to do it, if they ever have the opportunity to rotate through the media office.”
The position rotates for a number of reasons, chief among them the advantages of having several officers trained up to the role – especially when it’s a busy day on the front lines.
“It’s an incredibly busy position,” FitzGerald said. “We deal with not just local but national and international media, and the job itself was approximately 60 to 80 hours a week. I was on call 24-7, 365 days a year. And you had to be sure you were ready to go at all times.”
She enjoyed the “fast-paced nature” of the job and dealing with the media in particular.
“I really enjoyed getting to know the media. Because I’ll be honest with you, prior to becoming media officer I didn’t have a favourable opinion of the media. And I think that came from ignorance. I didn’t know. I didn’t know what you really did. I didn’t know the circumstances around how you worked. I didn’t know about deadlines and editors and the pressures that are placed on reporters. I had no idea. I really got to know these people and realized very early on that I was completely off base and you were doing your job and it’s an incredibly important job to educate the public. I’m part of the public and I want to be informed. I want people to dig and to be investigative journalists and find out the details about issues that are important to me. And I never saw that before. I was always a newsy, I followed the news, but I didn’t like some of the angles. I thought that they were negative and sometimes sensationalistic. But then when I got in the media position and started dealing with some of the reporters, my eyes were completely opened. And I have a lot of great friends within the media now, and I have a great deal of respect for all of them, to do what they do. I don’t know how you do it. People say to me ‘I don’t know how you do your job’ and I would say ‘I don’t know how you do yours’ because of the responsibilities that are there, the pressures to get it right, the criticism that comes from having a very public life.”
With her face on the news almost every day, FitzGerald also had a high public profile.
“That’s something I struggled with somewhat, in terms of being recognized in public. Everywhere I go, like the west coast of the province or Labrador or wherever, people would recognize me, and that almost took me off guard as a police officer who worked the street. I was heavily involved in drug investigations and drug trafficking as a police officer, and my anonymity was very important to me. So it was goodbye to that – there goes my undercover career!”
FitzGerald was always confident and articulate in front of the cameras and microphones, but that was no accident.
“For every one minute of an actual interview, it equates to approximately one hour of preparation – research, reading the file, anticipating the questions, scripting responses, key messaging.”
And while she may have appeared totally at ease on camera, FitzGerald said the reality was entirely different.
“I didn’t like the camera. It’s not comfortable. I was completely out of my comfort zone. But that was a challenge, and I like challenges. So it was something that I dealt with and found my own coping mechanisms, be it doing pushups in my office prior to an interview or yoga breathing or whatever it may be, but I found my own coping mechanism to make it a little more comfortable.”
To share her learnings and help other officers prepare for their time in the media spotlight, FitzGerald developed a series of training modules before leaving the position, everything from basic training for new recruits to advanced courses for supervisors, and many roles in between – including her own.
“Prior to leaving the media office, I started four new courses: high risk/crisis communication (two days), social media (one day) and executive media training (four days). The fourth is a three-hour course for media representatives themselves, a collaborative training program done in house with each media outlet. It provides information on RNC protocols, their legal rights, how they can get information from the RNC, what our policies are concerning the release of information and how to keep themselves safe when attending police scenes. To the best of my knowledge, this will be the first of its kind. Cst. Talia Murphy [FitzGerald’s replacement] will continue the development of these initiatives.”
FitzGerald has represented the RNC through dozens of incidents, and experienced the full range of emotional responses to situations which, by the nature of police work, are most often tragic.
“There have been so many (memories): the oddities and unusual crimes such as the severed coyote head, fatality of a gentleman who was breaking into a commercial property, the accidental death of a child who was the same age as my son, the delight of us locating a missing child in the woods on the west coast just before nightfall, the father of the missing fisherman in Bauline who hugged me on the shoreline as our Marine Unit searched for his son's body, but one in particular stands out… Ann Marie Shirran. I was involved in the continuous appeals to the public for information concerning her whereabouts from Day One and was at all of the ground search efforts. I was up in the helicopter with search and rescue looking for her… I was on my last day of summer vacation with my son when I was notified that her remains were found. I returned to work the day we disclosed the arrest… Dealing with her family, seeing her little boy, following the vigils… It is a tragedy that I will never forget. My thoughts were and still are with her son. A child should never have to lose their mother in such a tragic way. I thought about all the questions he would have when he got older, how difficult it will be for the family to have that conversation and how he, as an adult, would internalize and deal with such a profound loss. In meeting his family, I know they will ensure he knows just how much his mother loved him and I pray that it is the knowledge of that love that will stay with him throughout his life.”
FitzGerald is clearly an officer who throws heart and soul into her work – a trait that should serve her well in her new role as Domestic Violence Co-ordinator with the RNC. More on that in part two, coming soon.