A Call for Courage: A Commencement Address from Council Chair Dave Senay

Dear Graduates of 2013:

First, please accept my heartiest congratulations on your achievement.  You have reached what for many will be the end of formal education, and the beginning of making a path for the future.  That’s why they call it “commencement.”  You may commence with your life!

Traditionally at this time, the Chairman of the Council of PR Firms makes a pitch to you to consider a career in public relations.  In that regard, I can’t think of a more complete or convincing argument than the one put forward last spring by my predecessor, Andy Polansky.  He did a masterful job capturing what a challenging and rewarding career you might have in our industry.

Or if you would rather hear from other new members of our the public relations field, you might enjoy visiting the Council’s career section to hear from a variety of people from all walks of life who have found the early days of PR agency work richly fulfilling.

For the remainder of this letter to you, I’d like to focus on what some might think to be a quaint concept from a bygone era:  independence.

First, let me say that the concept of “community” has many attractions.  In community we have a sense of belonging.  We share and learn from each other’s experiences.  We feel safe and secure.  We know the rules.

At the same time, however, “community” inherently implies a kind of homogeneity that in today’s pluralistic and hyper-connected world can handicap our ability to understand what is really going on around us.

Please permit me to expand on that idea.  Most of you completed four years of college curriculum.  During those four years you may have held onto the idea that your individuality was being elevated.  Yet you all studied from the same text books.  You were judged on standardized tests that measured you against a “norm.”  Your professors largely specialized in areas of study that they promulgated in class after class.  Sure, you may have expressed differences of opinion, but in the grand scheme the differences between each of you are relatively minor, especially when you consider the kinds of differences that you will encounter in real life.

The same argument could be made about the neighborhood most of you live in, or the religion you choose to follow.  You have gathered around common values and common beliefs.  Then you go home and engage in social media by connecting with people who share many of your experiences…in fact, “sharing” is what it’s all about.  And on matters of great gravity (no, buying a flat screen TV or a cell phone are not among them), you likely gravitate to web-sites that support your current beliefs.  I mean, really, does anyone actually use the internet to change their mind anymore on issues like immigration, abortion, sexual preferences, global warming, capitalism, socialism, or the widening gap between the “haves” and the “have nots?”  No.  I thnk not.  Let’s face it:  we flock to familiar places — our well-known “comfort zones.”


Does all of that sound outrageous?  I hope so.  I’m trying to be deliberately provocative to support the notion that your individuality is both highly overrated right now and under attack at the same time and you probably don’t know it.   Just as importantly, the world needs independent thinkers now more than ever.

My observation is that the Western world in particular has built monuments to “strategy” and cathedrals to “logic.”  Yet the world needs much larger doses of “critical thinking” and its lifeblood is passion.

When I refer to “critical thinking,” I’m really asking:  do we analyze quickly what is right, and what is wrong?   And in the odd moment when we actually engage critical thinking, upon what values are we basing those judgments?

This is where your individuality emerges as vital.  There’s an old saying, “when everyone is thinking the same, no one is thinking.”

To be fair, the world thrives on consensus and we should strive for it.  The world is built upon teamwork and we should seek it and reward it.  But along the way, the power of the individual needs to be expressed and asserted more than ever as we shape the direction of the future.

Yet, we are social creatures by nature and that brings with it certain tendencies to “go with the flow,” seek acceptance and approval from our peers.  It also leads to a pack mentality that has expressed itself in unintended and negative ways.

For example, would the banking crisis have occurred if more people exercised their critical thinking, emboldened by their sense of individual value?  Would company after company pursue socially reckless policies if there were more independent, critical voices in play?  I doubt it.

So each of you stands on the brink of a completely new phase of life.  I encourage you to examine what you truly believe and why.  Likewise, what are the issues that you would stand up for and defend, or attack?  Our society needs more constructive disagreement…and “in the moment,” not necessarily the organized discontent fomented by political movements.

It’s more of this kind of courage that we need in the world.  It’s also needed in our profession of public relations.  In many ways, our clients are asking us simple questions:  how does the world work?  Are we doing the right thing?  And often, the issue won’t come in the form of an obvious question.  Instead, it will come in the hooded and mundane form of a half-baked decision just waiting for someone to step forward and ask “why” or “why not?”

To the class of 2013:  be that person.

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