Oral Histories

Al Golin

Interview Segments on Topic: Challenges/Accomplishments

Al Golin Biography

Al Golin, founder of the international public relations firm GolinHarris, began his career in 1951 as a field press representative for MGM Studios.  In 1957, when he was with Max Cooper & Associates, he placed a cold call to Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s.  That conversation eventually grew to a partnership that changed McDonald’s from a fledgling company to one that has grown to 37,000 locations worldwide with 243 Ronald McDonald Houses in 25 countries. Al Golin developed the term “TrustBank” with Ray Kroc, believing trust as the greatest intangible at the heart of every long-term business or personal relationship. GolinHarris currently has 30 offices worldwide with corporate headquarters in Chicago, Illinois.


Interviewer: One of the famous stories about you is the fact that you made a cold call to a person by the name of Ray Kroc a few years after you started. Would you tell us about how t hat came and what happened after you made that call?

Golin: Well actually it was a cold phone call I made to Ray Kroc about a year after I joined Cooper in this small public relations firm. So we’ve had the McDonald’s account now for around 40 49 years this year. But who’s counting?  I did make a cold phone call to him. He had a very small office here in Chicago with LaSalle and Wacker. Somebody told me about this fledging little company he was starting. Just had a handful of the old red and white tile McDonald’s. And when I called him up he said come on over. So I went right over t here. And after about half hour he said okay start Monday. And I told him our fee at that time was $500 a month. And that was our going rate.

Interviewer: What did you pitch to him that he bought? What services did you say you were going to do for him?

Golin: Well at that point when they were so small and I knew they were planning on opening quite a bit all over the country I thought that public relations would be an economical way to get this story told. They couldn’t afford national advertising and they really couldn’t afford any advertising of any kind at that point. So the first thing I told him that I thought we could be helpful in selling franchisees, because that was his key consideration. So we tried to tell the story of how successful some of the existing franchisees were and how a good investment this was for certain people to get into it. When I say an investment I don’t mean just a monetary investment because they never took people as investors. You had to really get involved. Be a working franchisee.

Interviewer: But you then helped select the media that were used in and actually were you doing this all on your own. Writing the stories?

Golin: Well yes I was doing everything in those days. It was I used to write the releases and type them myself on an old Smith Corona and then deliver them to the media. Try to sell the stories to media around the country. But so it was kind of a, you know. It wasn’t quite a one man band but it was pretty close to it.

Interviewer: What caused you to come up with the idea that you and I guess Ray hedged together of having a trust bank. What you called a trust bank? You coined the term I believe.

Golin: Yeah I think I did coin that term years ago where this trust bank would be akin to building up deposits of goodwill in case you needed it later on. And I think that it was sort of confounded people in those days because McDonald’s was a such a small company in selling 15 cent hamburgers and getting involved in the community was not exactly the kind of thing that you expected them to do. It was more expected of banks and major companies like utilities and things like that who got really involved in the community.

Interviewer: Was this a tough thing to sell for the franchisees or the organizations support this idea right from the beginning?

Golin: Well it was kind of an easy sell in that sense because Ray Kroc had a very big interest in public relations. He had a flair for it if you will. He was one of the he was sort of a public relations person’s dream. If you told him he had to go to Muncy, Indiana for an interview. He say okay what time do we leave? Because he had a great feeling for it. But sometimes you can have great ideas for clients but if they are not receptive it doesn’t mean anything. But he was always receptive from day one. He just felt good about it. And I think he came from a theatrical background. He was a musician. And he ran a radio station for a while in Chicago in the early days. He hired Amos and Andy the first jobs so he had this kind of flair for it. So I think he was an easy sell from that standpoint.

Interviewer: Did he have the at that time or did McDonald’s have at that time any kind of a public relations, internal public relations [inaudible].

Golin: No

Interviewer: You were the sole.

Golin: We were the inside and the outside if you will because they really were so small they couldn’t have any of those things. There I started to say earlier maybe in my talk about how we got started. There was a man named Sonoborn who was his Kroc’s partner who was the financial guy with the company. Ray was sort of the Mr. Salesman if you will and but Sonoborn was the financial brains behind the company and the man who came up with the real estate concept which really meant sense for them. And Sonoborn hated the idea that Ray Kroc hired us. Because he when Ray brought him in that morning when I came over to his office he hit the ceiling and said “What are you hiring a public relations firm for?” “You and I can’t afford to draw salaries.” So for the first couple of years I jumped every time I saw Sonoborn. I didn’t want to remind him of the $500 a month he was spending.

Interviewer: When did the idea of the Ronald McDonald Houses and how did that come about?

Golin: Well the Ronald McDonald House program started in Philadelphia about 30 years ago. The local McDonald’s franchisees were approached by the Philadelphia Eagles football team. The Eagles had a player whose daughter had leukemia and the player told everybody what a hard time it was for families of seriously ill children because they had no place to stay around the hospitals. A lot of them couldn’t afford to stay in hotels so that whole concept of building a house near a major children’s hospital where parents and the children themselves could stay while they were being treated came about. So it started there and then the local franchisees around St. Patrick’s Day decided to devote the proceeds of Shamrock Shakes milkshakes to be devoted to building this house. And sales were so good that the house was built in a very short period of time. So I went to go look at this house in the early when it first opened. And I thought it was such a good idea that I recommended to the company that they expand the idea. And you could open these houses I thought in almost major city. So while I certainly can’t take credit for creating the concept which I didn’t do. But I did recommend that they go national. And never dreaming it would be even internationally. They would open in Moscow and Tokyo and Stockholm and Brazil and wherever but that’s how the whole concept started.

Interviewer: Did you equate this with being part of the trust bank in taking something out or was there a relationship that you saw between the two?

Golin: Oh absolutely I thought it was a natural for I think still to this day I think clients will come to us and say “Well give us a Ronald McDonald House idea.” And those things are not easy to come by. It would be very easy if you could manufacture this thing. But it absolutely fits the bill as far as the statement about their involvement in the community because it was so important for McDonald’s to become part and parcel of the local community and what better way to illustrate that by having your name on the door if you will too of all these houses. So it really has been a heart warming experience in many ways.

Interviewer: Al just to shift gears here a little bit and you may have to really scratch your head to find an answer to this next question but what was the biggest challenge you faced in your career to date?

Golin: Biggest challenge in terms of a client you mean or at anything.

Interviewer: Anything you might have found that really tested your ability to solve the problem.

Golin: Well sometimes we’re now owned by another company as many firms are these days. Where they are a larger company that own advertising agencies and promotion agencies and related kinds of companies. And that’s a challenge. Because we like to separate ourselves from t hat if you will and retain what we think we built up over the years. So probably the biggest challenge is to retain the culture that we built up and not be sublimated by the parent company and that’s a constant thing that we go through. And I think they respect that and have given us that opportunity. And I know from other people in the industry. They don’t quite get that so there’s a terrific amount of stress sometimes in connection with that of being owned by somebody else. And that’s always a challenge after starting a business and being your own person and trying to retain what you have built up over the years. And yet you know and you want to grow and you want to utilize all the other things that they might offer. So again it’s that balancing act that’s so important. But it’s probably maybe one of the major challenges I can think of.

Interviewer: I think that’s an exceptionally good answer because it causes me to ask you a follow up questions and that is it seems like that the advertising agency or some of the major advertising agencies are the acquirers of qualified public relations firms like yourself and I’m not sure whether that’s a healthy thing or not to have the advertising as a specialty being the inquirer as opposed to public relations which I would perceive of being more all encompassing than in advertising. So how do you deal with that kind of perceptions like that that people would have?

Golin: Well it’ it is as I said earlier a challenge to separate the two if you will. And I think that the smart ones who are the parent companies realize that it is a different kind of business and you can’t generalize about it as you can running a promotion agency or something of that nature. That we do have a unique kind of business and they respect that. Hopefully you convinced or you’ve given them enough reason to say I’m doing fine. I’m doing well. Don’t tamper with it. And I think as I say I think the smart ones will respect that and leave you alone and try to have you retain what you do best.

Interviewer: We’ve talked a little bit about or you did about the challenges that you confronted and one of the major ones. What challenges do you see facing what would be known as the public relations profession or other executives today and how the challenges which you are about to identify, how can they be resolved or met?

Golin: Well I think that we might have a tendency today with all this technology to overreact and try to take out the human element out of the whole thing. And I think that’s a danger. You know technology changes as we all know so fast that who would have predicted these things happening. I was supposed to give a talk. I’m still supposed to give a talk about the next 50 years in public relations. And I’m reminded of the guy who gave a talk I don’t know about ten years ago who predicted there would be helicopter pads on every major building in the United States. Well obviously it didn’t happen. So I think that you can overreact to things. And be influenced by this to a dangerous extent. And I don’t mean I want to turn the clock back on a lot of things because I’d like to. But there’s no turning the clock back. That I think that newspaper readership is going to be almost decimated in the next ten twenty years and I hate to see that. Because I’ve been such a great proponent of that since I was a kid. And I’ve always been kind of a news junkie. And I just hate to see something like the newspapers die out. And I do see that they are having so many problems. Young people just aren’t reading and it’s true you can get things online almost everywhere you go but it’s not the same. So it’s again not letting technology rule everything. To try to keep the human element is going to be extremely important thing for all of us.

Interviewer: I think I want to come back to that subject in a little bit. I wondered about in the area of challenges whether you were bothered by public relations being associated with spinning or PR being used as [inaudible] terms and if that bothers you at all. The general connotation that public relations sometimes generates. Or if you have ideas or ways that you think that they can be overcome or whether it should just be ignored?

Golin: Well I am still bothered by the term being put down by a lot of people who don’t know anything about the business here. Well even here. Here’s the thoughts our clients. Give us some of that PR stuff. You know and I said what do you mean? I said lie. Or spin or lie. Right. But I think that the real danger of our of the business and I don’t think we have to be so think skinned that we can’t handle that but I do feel that we have to respond wherever we do hear that kind of thing. Because there are still a lot of people around who don’t know what we do in our business. And still think that we buy advertising or create advertising so it’s a constant educational job. But I must say it’s a lot better than it was obviously things have evolved. It used to be too when public relations would be the first thing cut when budgets were curtailed. And companies would say well where can we cut down. It was always public relations before advertising and before almost anything else. But today we found that even in times the economy is soft. Public relations still does well and I think that companies are more sophisticated now. They realize they do need it. And I think many of them need it for the maybe or think they need it for the wrong reasons because they’ve seen things happen when they didn’t have good public relations. Or they’ve seen a president like Nixon go down. You know because of some of those things, and companies like the Enrons and the WorldComs are in trouble. So sometimes I think that has benefited public relations in the sense that people realized that they need good public relations in order to combat those things and ward those things off.