It isn’t every day you pick up the phone and Walter Cronkite
is on the other line—and he needs something from you. He needs
to talk to your boss. And you are the person he has to charm in
order for that conversation to take place.
Not all of Deanna Congileo’s personal conversations are so
notable, but as director of public information for the Carter Center
and the primary gatekeeper for media access to Jimmy and Rosalynn
Carter, more media titans than not have her number on file.
And those calls have only been increasing over the past month and
a half. Since Oct. 11, when Carter was named the recipient of the
2002 Nobel Peace Prize, Congileo and her office have fielded more
than 500 interview requests.
“It’s inspiring, in that the Carters set high standards,
but they do it by setting their own example,” Congileo said.
“They are keenly aware of the value of time, and they don’t
waste it. I learned from them what it means to really work hard
and just how much one person can get done on any given day. I also
learned about the role that courage plays in convictions.”
Congileo is part of the delegation from the center that is supporting
Carter in Oslo as he receives the Nobel Prize. She and her staff
prepared all of the press materials to be handed out to journalists,
and she controls access to the former president by setting up his
interviews. She left for Norway on Dec. 5 and will be there for
Since coming to the center 11 years ago, Congileo had heard almost
constant rumors that Jimmy Carter would receive the Nobel Peace
Prize. There were some notable false alarms—like in 1995,
the year after he negotiated steps toward peace on the Korean peninsula,
in Haiti and in Bosnia.
So when Carter’s name came up again for this year’s
prize, it was viewed cautiously at the center. But Congileo said
she sensed something a little different about this year’s
rumblings from reporters in news organizations here and in Norway,
the Nobel host country, who were saying that 2002 was Carter’s
“I’d heard the speculation off and on for years,”
Congileo said. “But as the announcement approached, I really
started believing. Of course, I couldn’t say that to the Carters.”
Press kit materials were gathered. Draft statements were prepared.
Congileo had a list of everyone’s cell phone numbers. Arrangements
were made for the center’s website to be monitored early on
Oct. 11 to be certain it did not go down, and an online media center
was prepared to assist media worldwide seeking information on the
Carters and the center. A detailed staff plan was prepared orchestrating
each staff person’s responsibilities, should the media wave
On the evening of Oct. 10—the night before the announcement—expecting
a very long day, Congileo set her alarm early and was poised to
head into the office, when she got a phone call at 4:30 a.m. from
NRK, the Norwegian television network, informing her
Carter had won the prize. It wasn’t official, though, and
Congileo had no idea if Carter had been told. Five minutes later,
CNN called with the same unofficial word. The news organizations
wanted to pass along the good information, of course, but they also
had other reasons for calling.
“They wanted me to line up an interview before I even knew
if President Carter had been called by the Nobel Committee,”
By 5:30 Congileo had official word and was in the office at the
Carter Center. The voicemail system had reached its limit. Staffers
spent the morning returning calls. By 7:30 a.m., the day’s
plan was complete. Carter would give his acceptance speech in Plains
that afternoon. It was time for a road trip.
“She was on the ball,” said Emily Howard, coordinator
of health programs at the Carter Center and one of the six members
of Congileo’s staff. Howard was one of four people, including
Congileo, who traveled to Plains for the event. “She had a
list of things to do, people were moving, everybody had their job
to do. It brought us together. I think it showed that our office
can work well in all sorts of circumstances.”
Congileo exudes a businesslike intensity not uncommon in press-relations
types. It isn’t easy to mix the openness and collegiality
necessary to deal with people whose job it is to collect information
with the guardedness that is essential to protect her employers.
Congileo, though, has found the right balance.
“I’m always thinking about what a reporter needs to
put a good story together and what a one-on-one interview with President
Carter is going to add to it,” Congileo said. “I evaluate
both the opportunities and liabilities it offers us. Sometimes we
can be drawn into commenting on things that aren’t really
on the center’s agenda because a reporter is looking to write
a story on a particular issue. So, I’m always weighing those
things when I look at an interview opportunity. I think different
organizations and individuals have different levels of risk tolerance,
and it’s also a matter of assessing that.”
“Media relations for an ex-first couple presents challenges
that most PR practitioners don’t face,” said Kay Torrance,
assistant director of public information for the Carter Center’s
peace programs. “Any major world event prompts reporters to
call and ask for President Carter’s opinion. Deanna has the
responsibility of telling reporters ‘no,’ and they don’t
always take that well.”
Congileo came to the Carter Center in 1991 after six years as associate
director of public information at Bucknell University in Lewisberg,
Pa. She began her career at the center working as the lead public
information officer for its peace programs and as Mrs. Carter’s
In August 2001, she was promoted to her current position as director
of public information and press secretary for Jimmy and Rosalynn
Carter. Congileo has managerial oversight for the production and
management of all Carter Center publications, the website, all media
relations for the center and the Carters, and strategic communications
planning for the center. All interview requests come through Congileo,
and while the Carters have final say on who they talk to, her opinion
“There have always been different things to do at the Carter
Center because we have a small staff with a big mandate,”
she said. “It’s never been boring, both in terms of
the excitement with working with the media on high-profile projects,
but also in terms of the range of things you can do in this office
as a professional in this field.”
Things like traveling to Norway for the Nobel Peace Prize presentation.
“Deanna’s tremendously dedicated and knowledgeable,”
said Jon Moor, associate director of public information for the
Carter Center. He came to the center nine months ago after having
worked as a television producer for CNN and WSB-TV and in CARE’s
press office. “With her guidance, I’ve been able to
enjoy and understand our work here even more than I’d originally
Congileo’s support of the Carter Center’s peace programs,
health care initiative and human rights projects has taken her to
12 countries: Cuba, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kenya, Mexico, Norway, Nicaragua,
Liberia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Peru and Venezuela. While each was
special in its own way, Congileo said her most memorable trip was
to Cuba this past May.
“That was monumental for the United States, Cuba, the Carter
Center, Emory,” she said, “and for me.” Her job
on that trip was to keep the 300 media members from all over the
world informed about not only the activities and goals of the visit
and the Carter Center, but also offer issues management advice during
the sensitive diplomatic mission.
“We don’t shy away from controversial situations,”
Congileo said. Carter’s Cuba trip most certainly fell into
that category. “There are a lot of people engaging in a public
dialogue about what the Carter Center is doing. Sometimes there’ll
be a need to respond to some of the things that are said. Sometimes
there’ll be a need to correct inaccuracies as quickly as possible.
The challenge is to manage the information we provide to the public
in a way that meets the public’s need to know yet does not
jeopardize the mission and its objectives.”
In Oslo, Congileo’s task is even larger. She will be dealing
with between 300–500 journalists from more than 100 news organizations,
although the occasion should focus on celebration rather than controversy.
“Every time something happens here and I think it can’t
get more wildly exciting, it does,” Congileo said.
Oh, by the way, Walter Cronkite got his phone call with President
Carter. This time.