PR Legend, 87, Remembered for His Heart and Integrity in a Challenging Industry
A fading Western Union telegram that hangs, memorialized, on the wall of Al Golin’s office at Chicago’s John Hancock Center says just about everything you need to know about Al:
“We never would have made it without your help,” wrote McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc to Al back in August 1977. “We were immature amateurs with virtually no friends. Thank you, Al, a million times.”
Golin, who in 1956 joined a Chicago public relations agency that today bears his name around the world, passed away peacefully on Saturday, April 8, 2017 at his second home in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 87.
Al is survived by June Golin (nee Kerns), his wife of 55 years; their three children: Barry Golin (Gemma Brownhill), Karen Golin and Ellen Resnick (David Resnick); six grandchildren: Sam, Alex, Jackson, Kyle, Cydney and Marlena; and one great grandson, Thor.
Al was born in Chicago on June 19, 1929 to Charles and Jeanette Golin. He had an older brother, Ted, who passed away last year. Al spent his youth playing tennis, following his beloved Bears and Cubs, and working at the movie theater owned by his father. In his later years, Al stayed fit by playing golf and swimming laps nearly every day.
Al will be forever remembered as a man who poured his heart – and his desire to help others – into his life’s work. He spent more than six decades – through his final weeks – mentoring aspiring PR professionals and providing counsel to executives at some of the world’s most recognizable companies and brands, many of whom would no doubt join Ray Kroc in thanking Al for his contributions to their successes.
And in so doing, he established and grew the one public relations agency that has a heart as big as his own.
“Al’s name has been on our door for a long time. But it’s his character that defines who we are,” said Golin Chairman Fred Cook, who worked with Al for more than 30 years. “We’ve always been blessed with a special culture that sets us apart from others and makes us want to work here forever. And that culture is based on the simple, Midwestern values that Al lived by every day.”
Al was a different kind of PR practitioner. He injected humility, integrity, caring and curiosity into his work, and expected the same of those who worked for him.
Al carried those values to the office of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc in 1957. Following a cold call to Kroc, Al convinced him that the most successful companies build deep bonds with their communities and customers. In fact, Al urged all clients to “do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do,” as he wrote in his 2003 book, Trust or Consequences: Build Trust Today or Lose your Market Tomorrow.
On meeting Kroc, Al signed McDonald’s to a $500-per-month retainer. Little did he know that first “big contract” of his career would lead to the longest-lasting client-agency partnership in the PR industry. During that time, Al helped create many of the community-focused initiatives for which the company is known.
Al was closely involved in the creation of the McDonald’s All-American High School Basketball Game and the All-American High School Marching Band. He also is credited with naming Hamburger University, McDonald’s global center of training for operations and leadership development, providing training to 7,500 McDonald’s managers annually.
When he heard that a Philadelphia franchisee had started a local Ronald McDonald House, and saw first-hand what a difference it could make in the lives of families with children facing life-threatening illnesses, he encouraged McDonald’s to expand the program nationally. Sparked in part by Al’s counsel that McDonald’s expand the program, Ronald McDonald House Charities today operates in 63 countries and regions and cares for seven million children and families annually.
And, after a business trip to Hawaii where clients attended Friday meetings in aloha shirts and casual slacks, Al convinced McDonald’s executives to institute a “casual Fridays” policy that is believed to be the precursor to programs so many other companies eventually embraced.
All of these programs derived from one of Al’s most cherished philosophies, which he called, “Fix it before it breaks” – developing programs and taking actions when times are good to stave off the inevitable down times.
His legacy lives on through McDonald’s annual Al Golin Trust Bank Award, established in 1992 and presented to the McDonald’s franchisee who best represents the spirit of community engagement Al inspired in McDonald’s during his 60 years of partnership with the company.
Al began his career with a goal of becoming a movie producer. His first job out of college was in the Chicago publicity department for MGM Studios, supporting legendary actors like Esther Williams, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Robert Taylor and others.
Al said the public relations aspects of his MGM job soon held more allure than the idea of producing movies. So he left the movie business, and eventually took a job as a junior partner at a PR firm called Max Cooper & Associates. Soon after, he signed the retainer with Ray Kroc.
As the McDonald’s relationship grew, the agency evolved to become Cooper, Burns & Golin, then Cooper & Golin and then – when he was joined by longtime business partner Tom Harris – Golin/Harris Communications.
Al led the drive to further expand the agency, eventually opening or acquiring offices across the Americas, Europe, Asia and elsewhere. Today the agency is known simply as Golin, with more than 50 offices and some 1,200 employees globally. In addition to McDonald’s, Golin’s clients include Walmart, Nintendo, Unilever, Texas Instruments, Johnson & Johnson and others.
But despite the agency’s growth and success, its people-first culture of collaboration will live on through Al’s spirit and longstanding and oft-stated philosophy that, “if you find a job you love, you will never work another day in your life.”
Al also often said that, “happy employees make for happy clients.” This inspired the agency to recently dub its culture as “courageously happy,” as a lasting tribute to Al.
A signature cultural event at Golin is Al’s Day – an annual global day of service inspired by Al’s strong belief in giving back to the community. Originally conceived to commemorate Al’s June 19 birthday, Golin offices around the world close their doors and employees roll up their sleeves to help local non-profit and other organizations in need fulfill their missions of improving lives and communities. Invariably, Al was at the center of the action, whether it was painting a local YMCA, cleaning American Red Cross disaster services trailers, tidying up neglected urban parks or serving meals at a local Ronald McDonald House. Inspired by Al, Golin employees have donated tens of thousands of hours of service to their communities in Al’s Day activities around the world.
Al was a fixture in Golin’s Chicago headquarters office, where he came to work daily and counseled colleagues and clients alike, offering insights from his decades in the business. In recent years, when he spent the winter months in Scottsdale, Al stayed connected to the business on a daily basis by email, phone and the regular return to Chicago for important meetings.
Al was a master storyteller, who often shared poignant and humorous anecdotes about his career and the people he met along the way.
Like the time he ran into Ernest Hemingway in a Havana bar and convinced the legendary author to pose for a photo, much to the displeasure of Hemingway’s wife. That photo still hangs in Al’s office.
Or when he requisitioned Norman Rockwell to paint the cover of a McDonald’s annual report by personally knocking on the door of the aging artist’s Connecticut home, only to be told by Rockwell that he had forgotten about the meeting and now wasn’t interested. Al talked to Rockwell six months later, and one month after that, he and Kroc returned to Rockwell’s home to pick up the painting that would ultimately grace the cover of the next year’s annual report.
While Al’s fateful call to Ray Kroc was significant in his business career, Al insisted it was only the second most important call he made in his life.
Speaking at a celebration of the firm’s 60th anniversary in July 2016, Al said: “Someone once asked me, ‘Was the call to Ray Kroc — the cold phone call you made all these years ago – the most important call you ever made in your life?’ And I said, ‘No it was really the second most important call. The first one was asking my wife June out for our first date.’”
Indeed, June was a constant, steadying presence for Al, both personally and professionally. Even as they raised their children, Al and June collaborated in support of countless charitable causes, including Ronald McDonald House Charities and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, where June is an honorary lifetime member of the board of directors. And June was a consistent presence at Al’s side during business meetings, client events and more. Al was proud to have June – a trained singer – perform at an annual holiday party for McDonald’s officials, and she worked closely with him on the themes and logistics that became an event attendees anticipated throughout the year.
Growing up, the children also actively participated in Al’s work, often traveling with their parents on McDonald’s-related trips, including those to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day and Tournament of Roses parades, where the McDonald’s All American High School Band marched annually.
Al was a 1950 graduate of Roosevelt University in Chicago, where he later returned to serve on the University’s Board of Trustees for 16 years.
Throughout his legendary career, Al received abundant industry recognition. Accolades include lifetime achievement awards from the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), Publicity Club of Chicago and Inside PR magazine, the PRSA Gold Anvil Award and the Arthur W. Page Society Hall of Fame Award for “Career Achievements and Outstanding Contributions to the Profession.”
Al received the Institute for Public Relations’ Lifetime Achievement Alexander Hamilton Medal in 2009 and Roosevelt University’s Distinguished Service Award in 2005. He also served for 30 years on the Board of Directors for the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
Al was named one of the 100 Most Influential Public Relations People of the 20th Century by PR Week, served as a PRSA Fellow and received honorary doctorate degrees from DePaul University and Roosevelt University. In 2014, Al was inducted into the PR Week Hall of Fame.
A memorial service will be held in Al’s honor in Chicago at a date to be determined. In lieu of flowers, the Golin family has asked that donations be made in Al’s name to Ronald McDonald House Charities, the Off the Street Club, the Goodman Theatre or Roosevelt University.