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December 9, 2002

Officer of information

By Eric Rangus

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 every event.

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 year.

“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 hit.

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,” Congileo said.

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 press secretary.

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 guides decisions.

“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 hoped.”

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.