2020 Commencement Speaker

Cindi Berger '83, chairman of the international public relations and marketing firm R&C PMK, will speak to graduating seniors.

To the Class of 2020, this is such a momentous occasion and I am honored to be here, sharing it with all of you. A special thank you to President Collado, Professor Gayeski, and, of course to all of you, the Class of 2020.

As you know, I’m an Ithaca grad myself, so this is even more exciting for me.

For alums, it’s kind of a standard thing to talk about how different everything was back when we were in college. And it’s true. A lot of things were different. No cell phones. No Google. I finished my final papers on a typewriter and the IC Bombers were the NCAA Division 3 Champions in Football!

Your Commencement and your entire senior year are not what you expected. That bitter Ithaca winter was supposed to give way to a senior spring. Instead, you were sent home abruptly. No goodbyes. No chance to jump into the Dillingham fountain or picnic at Buttermilk Falls.

Commencement has always been a little scary, a little uncertain, and an incredible rite of passage. Some lucky grads may have a job lined up. I wasn’t one of those grads.

Believe it or not, my career path started one day the summer after graduation, when I was lying in a friend’s pool, reading Cosmopolitan magazine, and there was an article about celebrity publicists. I said to my friend, “I love movies, music, entertainment...I think this is the career for me.”

And that was it. I took my resume, drove into Manhattan, and dropped it off at two different PR firms: Rogers and Cowan and PMK. Today, more than 30 years later, I’m the chairman of both of those firms. Now, it’s actually one—I merged them last year.

"I know that today, every element of that story sounds like distant history: floating in the pool next to a friend. Going into the city and walking into an office building that isn’t deserted. Riding the elevator with strangers. Starting a new job. All of it! It’s hard… impossible… to do these things when you’re sheltering in place. And yet: if there’s any generation that can maneuver that distance, it’s yours."

OK, perhaps Zoom wasn’t your app of choice. Probably still isn’t. But you understand better than anyone how to use social media to connect: how to get in touch and stay in touch, to organize and inform, to combat hate and spread joy.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from my career, it’s that relationships—real, meaningful relationships—are grounded in a simple, basic principle. A principle that I learned not at my job, but in my high school geometry class. It’s probably the only thing that I remember from geometry that “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.”

Yes, I mean that figuratively.

Often, the shortest distance—the closest connection—comes from being direct and honest; from trusting that others are telling the truth; from avoiding gossip or hearsay and going straight to the source.

Don’t get me wrong: social media is great for connecting.  But there’s a huge difference between connecting with someone and building a connection with them.

The problem is, it’s hard to do all that in 280 characters or less.

More often than not, to build connection, it takes personal, face-to-face interaction.

I’m lucky. When I got into the communications business, in my earliest days on the job, I was privileged to meet and talk to so many people. I remember, as the receptionist, striking up a conversation with tennis legend Billie Jean King. What began as small-talk 30 years ago is now a trusted client relationship, and a meaningful friendship.

The same can be said about my friend Jeff. Thirty years ago, Jeff was a young, up-and-coming producer at the Today show. Long story short, Jeff had a fight with someone at my firm and, as a result, banned all of our clients from appearing on the Today show —not an auspicious start to a friendship. As a publicist, I needed my clients on the Today show, and Jeff and I weren’t getting anywhere on the telephone. So, I got up from my desk, walked over to his office at 30 Rock, and the two of us hashed it out.

Needless to say, I got my clients on the Today show. And thirty years later, Jeff is still a close friend. He is also, by the way, Jeff Zucker, the President of CNN Worldwide, and Chairman of WarnerMedia News & Sports.

The takeaway here is that building a connection with someone is not easy. It takes time, energy and an investment. Yes, texting is easier and faster but it doesn’t replace personal connectivity.

I think about another longtime client, Sean Combs. You might know him as Puff, or Diddy. What you might not know is that he’s also a passionate activist.

A few weeks ago, during the first wave of nationwide protests against police brutality, Sean learned about a woman named Miss Opal Lee. Miss Opal is 93. When she was 12, her house in Fort Worth, Texas, was burned down by white supremacists; when she turned 89, she walked from her hometown in Fort Worth to Washington, DC in an effort to make Juneteenth a national holiday. In the four years since that journey, history has finally started to catch up to Miss Opal. And Sean knew he could accelerate that process.

So, he picked up the phone and called her. He asked about her remarkable story and tireless work. She needed a hundred thousand signatures on her petition to try to get Juneteenth to be made a national holiday. That was her goal.

Sean could have just tweeted about the petition and left it at that. And that would have helped. But in his words, he wasn’t looking for “just a hashtag.” He wanted to hear Miss Opal’s story directly from her, so he can pass it along to the next generation.

In the days that followed, he got to work—hosting a conversation with Miss Opal on his Instagram, partnering with friends in the industry to share her story. And, on June 22, he called Miss Opal back to share the news that her petition had received not a hundred thousand signatures, but one million signatures.

Sean wanted to build a relationship. And I’m willing to bet that relationship will continue to grow and evolve—and keep inspiring him, and others, to create lasting social change.

Maybe you don’t have as many followers as Puff. But what you do have is the power to use your platform for good. As you go out into the world—whether it’s a new city, or your old bedroom—use it.

Be smart. Be thoughtful. Make us laugh with your dance moves. Inspire us with your words. And then, pick up the phone and call.

Call that friend who needs a cheerleader. That person whose cause needs elevating. The family who has loved you your entire life. The professors who taught you the last four years. That company you’d love to work for.

That’s how you build a network of friends and do it with honesty and integrity. Because at the end of the day, that’s what matters most.

And remember: the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

Congratulations, Class of 2020!