Oral Histories

Al Golin

Full Interview

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: 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: In recent years GolinHarris has become well known for having created the idea of a trust index a GolinHarris Trust Index, which is now a measure of some sort of corporate social responsibility. Is there what’s the connection between the Ronald McDonald Houses, McDonald’s, and your coming up with that idea?

Golin: Well the word trust has always been part and parcel of our credo at GolinHarris. Even before it became fashionable. Now today everybody seems to be talking about the word which is great. But because I think they realize that without trust a lot of these major companies would be in trouble and the whole trust index was something that we came up with some research on in testing what the index was as far as trust is concerned with some of the major companies in the country. And we’ve even expanded it to go to Asia and Europe as well. So we try to come up with this index to see how well a company is doing in terms of its trust quotient if you will.

Interviewer: How broad when you use the term trust. How broad are the issues that you cover as far as what constitutes trust?

Golin: Well.

Interviewer: Try to explain that in some meaningful way.

Golin: Well trust is so important I think it’s so important that everything we do in terms of a business or in our personal lives because without you can’t you can’t really function. And it even caused me to write a book about it a couple of years ago. Because we used the word trust and then when the Enrons and the World Coms came about with all the scandals at the first part of this century. Somebody came to me and said well why don’t you do a book on this subject because you always talked about trust. So somebody contacted me an agent called me and like a lot of things in life, I don’t I didn’t react until I was I had a deadline. So when they committed to do the book then I had to sit down and figure out how to do it.

Interviewer: I think that your book Trust and Consequences has actually become one of the best books on the subject that has been written and is now available for people both in corporations and agencies to really get a sense of what the issues are. I wonder if you would just describe for the purposes of this activity, what some of the big issues are that you feel corporations and agencies faced are related to trust.

Golin: Well for example I interviewed some CEO’s of some of the major companies that I admired. And wanted to get their feelings on it. And one of them was a man named Ralph Larson who is the former CEO of Johnson & Johnson. Because I had heard he coined a term called a trust mark. I always got it mixed up with my Trust Bank. But and I always thought that was a great term. So when I called him about it and he spent a long time on the phone with me was being interviewed. And he said he thought that he always told his people at Johnson & Johnson that you don’t have a trademark in this company. You have a trust mark. And if anybody fouls that up you have me to answer to he said. So I was very impressed with what he talked about and I thought that was very interesting because it sums up almost everything you thought of with the word trust. Everything you do as far as your ethical standards of behavior whether you are an employee or your treatment with customers or almost everything you do is related to the word trust. If you lose the word if you lose trust you’ve really lost almost everything you have.

Interviewer: Do you suggest ways that companies or agencies or individuals can build trust in your book Trust and Consequences?

Golin: Well I think that you the whether you are an employee or whether you are treating your suppliers or your ultimate customers you have to keep the word trust in mind with everything you do. Well I don’t think it’s a matter of one single thing and it’s not a quick fix. Really it’s a long-term process where you have to build up these deposits if you will in this trust bank. So that it does make some sense to if a company does a problem or a crisis the public or your employees would not think ill of you and would think that you are not the kind of company that would violate that trust.

Interviewer: This trust or having a reputation for trust solely dependent on the CEO or the CEO’s involvement?

Golin: No, no I think the CEO sets the tone and the CEO is very important for setting the tone for the trust. But I think it has to be carried out in every department of a company.

Interviewer: So in other words a company could have a reputation for being trusted or a positive let’s say like an Enron could have had but the CEO actually actions did him in.

Golin: Well I think

Interviewer: Is that fair?

Golin: Well I think in that case it was not just the CEO but he must have set a tone in that company where all the others didn’t think of the word trust. I think they violated it in almost every step of the way because they were taking shortcuts and things of that nature. I think you’ll find that a lot of the newer companies now this is a generalization and I may not be completely accurate. But a lot of the newer companies have been taking shortcuts because they have so much pressure on them sometimes to come up with the right earnings quarter after quarter. So they’ll do things that aren’t quite ethical. And in doing so they really destroyed the, you know, the reputation of that company forever. And I think that’s the case in point in Enron.

Interviewer: Al is there an opportunity what are the opportunities for the person in public relations or corporate communications to have an impact on a CEO’s behavior in a situation like that?

Golin: Well I think that a public relations person has a great chance to have a strong influence if he or she has the credibility within that organization. And I think sometimes therein lies the problem. That some public relations people are not taken seriously by their top management. And that’s a danger. Because the CEO may say “Well that’s very nice to hear but what does that got to do with that mainstream of our business?” So I think that the average public relations officer of a company or anybody within departments for that matter has to gain the credibility of top management or else they are not going to be effective. They’ll go through the motions but they won’t have any influence at all that they really need to have at a time you know such as giving advice to a top CEO.

Interviewer: Now let’s talk about a very significant thing from a public relations standpoint. And that’s the ability of a person in the practice of public relations to develop credibility. What characteristic does someone have to have to have that kind of reputation where their advice is going to be welcomed and followed?

Golin: Well I think a public relations person in an organization has to really prove that they deserve the credibility by knowing the company as well as anybody else in that company. They can’t just know their own particular phase of the business. If it’s a company that has distribution as part of their business. They have to know what all the nuances are of that distribution system and they have to know anything everything about sales and manufacturing and things of that nature. Because they will never be taken seriously if they keep themselves isolated to think that they only want to concern themselves with what they do on a day to day basis.

Interviewer: What I hear you saying for public relations person to be effective is that they have to know more than just the discipline of public relations. They really have to have a broad knowledge about the company or the organization that they work for. Is that fair?

Golin: Oh that’s very fair. I think that’s been something that I talked about for a long time because I think it’s critical to the success of our whole industry. We want to be taken seriously. We want to be considered as part of top management of companies and of counselors in our case who might represent these companies. So we have to know the companies as well as they know themselves.

Interviewer: Do you see branding as part of advertising or public relations? How do you see the subject of branding these days?

Golin: Well I think somebody I know who is a great marketing guy said to me that without trust a brand is nothing. So I think that public relations built trust in a brand and that’s a very important thing and you can buy a lot of advertising if you are Coca Cola but it won’t necessarily give the make it a trusted brand if you don’t do certain things to complement that sort of thing. So I think that in our business we have to be very conscious of brand and I don’t think. There are a lot purists in our business too who say “We shouldn’t’ have anything to do with marketing or brands or things of that nature.” Well I’ve never believed that. I’ve always felt that this is a very important part of what we do. And I think if we take ourselves too seriously sometimes and worry about the word profession I think it’s a danger. I think we have to realize this is a business and you have to think of it as a business as well as a profession. And not let the other part of it overrule the fact that it is business.

Interviewer: Now to wrap this up I have to say that I was more than pleased to get on your calendar that had the list of some things that you have learned. In fact there were 12 things that you had learned over the last 50 years. And I thought that that was sort of an inspired list of things, which started out with trust is in everything. It’s the only thing. And you had a thing very characteristic of you and that if you got it don’t flaunt it. And doing good, is good for business. And don’t over promise. One of the latter and you said selling is not a dirty word which I think you amplified here. But one of the great things that you wound up with was love it or leave it. And I think that you’ve been an example of a person who loved what they are doing and I think we are all fortunate and blessed that you never even considered or think of leaving us so we appreciate that and we appreciate your time.

Golin: Thanks Jack. I appreciate the opportunity and I hope somebody might learn a few things. I know I enjoyed doing it and I do I still enjoy coming to the office. I said I hate to see people who resent going to the office on Monday mornings. All they think about is Friday afternoon. I think it’s great to think about Friday afternoons but you have to look forward to Mondays too.

Interviewer: One of the things I want to say while the camera is still rolling here is that you appreciate that everything that we’ve just done is going to become the property of Penn State and the Arthur Page Center in Pennsylvania at Penn State and that you and all of us here basically have just made a wonderful contribution to the Center and that if there is any significant changes in editing or things that were said that you would be notified but basically what we’ve got is what we’ve got and so I want you to know that and say that we appreciate that on behalf of the people in State College.

Golin: My pleasure.

Interviewer: Thank you.

Golin: Thank you.