If information is power, then the person who shapes and molds the flow of information coming from the Fairfax County government is pretty powerful, seeing as how that government oversees the services for 1.1 million people. So Merni Fitzgerald was a pretty powerful person in Fairfax for the last 14 years, though she is probably not well known to the general public. On Friday she retired with a minimum of fanfare after 28 years of dealing with louts and know-nothings such as me, and she did so with great professionalism and patience. Including a final exit interview with me on Friday afternoon.
As the chief public information officer with a staff of 18, Fitzgerald also oversaw all the other county spokesmen from the various departments (public works, health, police, fire, etc.) and made sure the county spoke with a consistent voice. Reporters like to tunnel in through side doors, find mid-level managers who will give them the unvarnished scoop. Fitzgerald made sure that those tunnels all wound up in her office, not only to control the responses given to the media, but to make them consistent and provide more information from other departments as needed.
“Common message, many voices,” is how Fitzgerald described her mission. She is fine with, say, a deputy fire chief speaking to the media, “but we need to take care all the time that we’re not contradicting each other.” If a reporter wants info from more than one county source, say public safety and health, Fitzgerald’s people coordinated that. Fitzgerald was always accessible, set up a 24-hour paging system for the media, and launched Fairfax into the wide wide world of social media, with her office Tweeting, Facebooking and all that jazz.
Fitzgerald also spent eight years as an elected official, both as a city councilwoman and vice mayor of Falls Church City, so she was familiar with speaking from the actual seats of power. And she had an interesting rule: She was always ON the record. Everything was usable. This meant that every word out of her mouth was carefully considered and official-sounding, but also reliable and accurate, which are in great demand by the media. Her professionalism was much appreciated by the regional press corps.
Former Fairfax Board Chairman Kate Hanley said, “Merni did a great job of making sure that citizens (and reporters) got the information they needed about day-to-day issues in Fairfax County and the region. In times of crisis like 9-11, the Sniper and Hurricane Isabel she was fantastic in making sure we all got accurate information and therefore reducing confusion and anxiety. We will miss her.”
Though born in Milwaukee, Fitzgerald grew up in Arlington, one of eight kids of a father who worked in government, for the federal Office of Personnel Management. She graduated from Bishop O’Connell High School and Madison College (before it was JMU), worked in the D.C. office of the Peace Corps from 1983-86, then became the spokeswoman for the Fairfax County Park Authority from 1986 to 2000. After 14 years in that job, she succeeded Jean Vandevanter White as top spokesperson for the county government, guiding Fairfax communications through the exploding growth of the Internet and social media, 24-hour news cycles, and the regional aftershocks of 9/11.
“The amount of time I’ve spent on emergency communications has greatly increased, because information is truly life saving,” she said. Dealing with the sniper attacks of 2002, various monster storms and the demand for instant information changed everyone’s jobs in local communications, but particularly those charged with giving that information out. “It’s the taxpayers who need the information,” Fitzgerald said. “Making sure there’s an efficient and effective way to disseminate information is the important thing.”
Fitzgerald is only 59, but she said she wanted to spend time with her four grandchildren and to travel. She is going to spring training in Florida soon and a trip to South Africa after that. She said she had no further plans, other than “enjoying the title of Grammy.” She will be succeeded by Tony Castrilli, formerly the chief PIO of Alexandria and a former news producer at WUSA-9 and News Channel 8. Will he always be ON the record? Will he allow reporters to tunnel in from the side? We will see.