PROFILE: Drake uses a journalist's touch to handle CNN talent

A journalist's life didn't suit Crystal Drake. However, the skills she honed in her four-year reporting stint have carved a solid comms career for CNN's current head of talent relations.

A journalist's life didn't suit Crystal Drake. However, the skills she honed in her four-year reporting stint have carved a solid comms career for CNN's current head of talent relations.

The ability to control a conversation while allowing the other person to believe they are is one of the handiest skills any PR pro could possess. To see this in action, one needn't look further than Crystal Drake, head of talent relations at CNN. Neither haughty nor brash, Drake is the dignified silent type, albeit draped in the elegant form of the consummate Southern woman. Drake's resume is a record of her successes, as well as an indication of her potential. She earned a full, four-year scholarship to Spelman College after being awarded valedictorian at Frederick Douglass High School in Atlanta, where she was student government president. She graduated Spelman cum laude with a bachelor's in English, and went on to earn a master's in English and creative writing at Hollins College in Virginia, where she won the 1997 Andrew Purdy Prize for best annual fiction. Her failure to make her high school's drill team was a rare, but clearly insignificant setback. Drake, 32, says she always knew she would be a communicator. Of course, as a young girl she didn't think of it in such terms. Like normal kids, Drake would romp about and play in her Northwest Atlanta community, but she would also steal away hours, making up stories and crafting them into books that she would staple together and present to her mother. "I guess I always knew expressive language and sharing through written and oral storytelling was important to me," she says. Drake thought she was going to be a journalist. Her scholarship program through Cox Enterprises, owner of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, required her to learn every aspect of the newspaper world. "I literally had a paper route at one point," says Drake. Quarter by quarter, as she moved through her college years, she balanced her studies with an intense 15-hour-per-week internship at the paper that took her from the business office to the classifieds to editorial assistantships, with a full array of desks in the bullpen. Upon graduation, she was guaranteed a job as a cub reporter at a major metropolitan daily - a coveted opportunity. However, "at the end of four years, I learned I didn't want to be a journalist," she says. Drake made a swift segue into PR by gaining a job in the public information office of The Carter Center, part of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library complex in Atlanta. Her duties included managing press events for the President and Mrs. Carter. It was her first experience with handling high-profile personalities, a skill that would become a crucial component in her career. A brief stint followed at the American Cancer Society (ACS), where Drake got to exercise her creative-writing skills. She takes great pride in the tagline she wrote for an antismoking ad campaign, "They say there's a sucker born every minute." Drake's career even includes an "Oprah moment." She parlayed her success at the ACS into a job as senior marketing associate for Habitat For Humanity International. By happenstance, her arrival coincided with Oprah's founding of her eponymous Angel Network. Aware of Habitat's reputation and work, Winfrey wanted to build a house or two or four around the country within a week. She dispatched her producers, and Drake got the call. "I had to really grow up on this one," she says. The producers had a TV schedule to keep, and Habitat's standard 11-week timeline to build houses just wouldn't do. "I had to tell them, 'We don't just put up tar paper shacks,'" says Drake, who had to negotiate a compromise on both sides. For Habitat, she identified the local chapters with the strongest memberships that could shave off time from the building schedule without shaving off quality of construction. In the end, Drake was awarded with a seat on the stage of the Oprah show with Habitat cofounder Millard Fuller. At present, Drake is managing a galaxy of star reporters and personalities as CNN's head of talent relations. The job requires her to be circumspect in her efforts so as not to cross several lines of ethics. Her professionalism was immediately tested as CNN found itself on the battlefield in Iraq. In particular, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a practicing neurosurgeon who provides regular medical reports for the network, was dispatched to the front lines of the war to cover the Devil Docs medical corps. One of the first rules of journalism is to guard against becoming involved in the story. The first rule of medicine is the Hippocratic Oath. When a young Iraqi boy arrived with severe head trauma, Gupta was asked to operate. He did. Gupta, CNN, and Drake had either a PR problem or opportunity, depending on the ethical nuance. Speaking over the satellite phone to Drake in Atlanta, the two decided to let the story lie and not accept requests for interviews. "The most critical thing is my credibility," says Gupta. "It takes somebody who looks beyond the obvious to find out what's going to be in everybody's interests. Crystal has a great filter." It remains to be seen what's next for Drake. One thing that seems certain, however, is that the trajectory of her career shows no signs of abating. ----- Crystal Drake 2003-present Head of talent relations, CNN 2000-2002 Special assistant to the First Lady, Office of the Governor, State of Georgia 1998-2000 Public awareness manager, Court Appointed Special Advocates 1997-1998 Senior marketing associate, Habitat For Humanity International 1995-1996 Creative-services writer, American Cancer Society, national home office 1992-1995 Assistant communications coordinator, The Carter Center 1988-1992 Journalism scholar, Cox Enterprises

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