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PR Face2Face: Al Golin, Chairman, GolinHarris

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PR Face2Face is a special series of interviews with the top public relations and publicity professionals in the country, as well as with people involved in the public relations world. The eigth installment is Al Golin, Chairman of GolinHarris.

A veteran for almost 50 years in the public relations industry, Al Golin is chairman of Chicago-based GolinHarris.

Al Golin

In addition to handling the McDonald’s account for more than 45 years, GolinHarris represents such companies as Bristol-Myers Squibb, Coors Brewing Co., Florida Department of Citrus, Levi Strauss & Co., National Peanut Board, Nestl, Nintendo of America, Owens Corning, Sprint, Texas Instruments, Toyota Motor Sales of America, and Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co.

As a consultant to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Al’s work centered on a major public relations awareness program for U.S. companies on the benefits of exporting to help our economy, increase employment, and reduce the balance of trade deficit.

Al is a member of the board of trustees of The Goodman Theatre of Chicago and Roosevelt University, a founding board member of Ronald McDonald House Charities, and is public relations advisor to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

He is also a member of the Arthur W. Page Society, the Public Relations Seminar and the Public Relations Society of America.

He has lectured at Princeton University, Dartmouth College, Yale University, Northwestern University, New York University, and the Annenberg Communication School at USC.

Al received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Public Relations Society of America, Publicity Club of Chicago and Inside PR magazine, and was named one of the 100 most influential public relations people of the twentieth century by the industry trade magazine PR Week.

His book, TRUST OR CONSEQUENCES, published by Amacom Books, is currently in distribution.

You are a legend in public relations, as the founder and head of Golin/Harris. What do you credit for the secret of your success? How did you get into PR?

I got into PR accidentally. After college, I thought I wanted to get into movie productions. My family owned movie theaters, in Chicago and California.

My first public relations job was at MGM Pictures in their publicity department. I thought it would be an entre in to the movie business. I ended up liking the PR end of the business and stayed in it.

I joined up with Max Cooper, who had a small firm, almost 50 years ago. Cooper now is a McDonald’s franchisor in Alabama, and commutes down there. At the time, the firm was Cooper and Golin. Tom Harris then joined me, who subsequently got out of the business 10 years ago.

With our recent rebranding, we evaluated our name and the thought was to change it just to Golin. The GolinHarris name has value, and people thought we should retain the full name. GH itself has somewhat become as well-known as the two names.

As for the success, I still take part in the business calls, the RFPs. I stay involved. The pitches are fun to win, not so fun to lose. I took part in the recent SC Johnson pitch – it was a remarkable pitch because we went so long. It was a great win against great competitors.

What has changed in public relations for the better and worse in the past 50 years?

For the better, it’s come of age, to a greater extent. When I started, my mother never understood what I did, and we had to sell the prospective clients on what PR is, before convincing them to hire us. The educational aspect of it is over pretty much, although there are plenty of people that confuse PR with advertising. There are very few, if any, large organizations that need to be convinced that they need PR or need to hire a firm. The more sophisticated markets, the people are aware of it. Generally speaking, I think it has achieved respectability – despite the few glitches – and we are in so many different areas that we never dreamt of, such as management consulting. Now PR is more than just traditional publicity.

For the worse, sometimes, the industry has a tendency to be pompous. There are too many PR people – whether agency or corporate – who think of themselves as a profession rather than a business. The “business” side is not a dirty word, but some view it that way. In order for us to be taken really seriously by top management, we still have a ways to go to become part of the mainstream.

We need to take the profession seriously, with high expectations.

What we do is a business. Whether it is on the agency side, or on the client side, we represent profit-making companies.

PR needs to be more focused on the business side. Clients want to make a profit, and we should not be embarrassed about wanting to make a profit. Sometimes, people in our industry have their hats in their hands, and are insecure. We need to be confident enough that our work is important to the client. We are not a stepchild, but have a major seat at the executive table.

Right now, there’s a bit of discussion on what are the differences between public relations and publicity. Do you envision yourself as more of a PR professional or publicist?

Publicity is such a small part of what we do nowadays. I am not diminishing the things we do for clients for exposure, but it has become increasingly less important over the years.

I don’t like the word publicist. It has the same negative connotation as flack, “getting ink.” What we do is so much more important than that. It’s more than just getting ink for clients. For some major companies, they might not want that all, but want less ink and PR has to counsel on how to do that, not be a lightning rod for everything and anything. Some companies are blamed for the ills of the world.

What advice would you give students entering public relations?

Well, I would really advise them on getting more business oriented skills, more well-rounded skills. I am always amazed at when I see a young person in PR who doesn’t read newspapers, who doesn’t watch the news.

I’ve always been a news junkie, so it’s hard for me to understand those that do not realize that if you are in the business, you really have to know what is current. If you are not knowledgeable on what is going on today, how do you advise clients or company on what to do tomorrow?

Too many young people are not in touch with today. That’s why I am still in the business, because I am very curious. I always want to continue to learn, and being curious is one of the most single important things in PR. I love it when a young kid asks me a lot of questions. I hate it when people don’t ask questions. I rather have too many asked, than not enough.

When we are pitching a new client, and they don’t ask questions – it doesn’t mean that we didn’t do well, but it’s a scary situation. Aren’t they curious about anything? Don’t they want to know more about something we said?

Public Relations seems to be under fire right now – both internally and externally – with the different crises of late – VNRs, Ketchum/Armstrong Williams, etc. What do you think is the biggest issue for PR in 2005 and beyond?

The biggest issue is credibility. It is being focused on the mainstream, trustworthiness.

Trust is a big word for us – I wrote a book about trust, Trust or Consequences, and have been giving speeches on it. I think the word “trust” to me is still the most significant word in regards to our maintaining trust for our clients, and trying to establish trust for the companies we represent.

Without trust, the brand and company mean nothing. In the book, I quote Ralph Larson, former CEO of Johnson & Johnson. I always considered them to be a great ethical company. He said that we don’t have a trademark, we have a trust mark. Anyone that violates that has to answer to the CEO.

I came up with a term for McDonald’s years ago, the “trust bank.” It really means building up deposits of good will, and whenever you need those deposits, you are able to use it when needed. McDonald’s has been attacked as a symbol of everything and anything. All the stuff they have done over the years – the trust bank – has served them well when they need to withdraw from that good will bank.

Your company does not have a blog – what are your views on the blogosphere and pitching blogs? Any short-term or long-term plans for launching a Golin-Harris blog or blog practice?

We have discussed it over the last few months, and we do follow them at our agency.

Richard Edelman has a blog, and he broke ground in that arena from the major firms. He’s done a good job being out there as a voice.

It is important; the industry is realizing that and is having meetings. Whether it’s Arthur Page, PRSA – we all realize blogs are a force to be recognized and reckoned with, and we need to address it.

Golin-Harris has its HQ in Chicago, along with some other firms. How did you decide on setting up the office in Chicago?

The major issue was that I lived there. Chicago has always been a good business town. If you can make it in Chicago, you can make it anywhere. My father said that to me as a child – if you can’t make it in Chicago, you can’t make it anywhere.

New York is obviously very important, but Chicago is more controllable than New York. The Midwest work ethic is something that our clients bring up – the Chicago state of mind that works well for us.

Plus, there’s not a real way to go virtual. It sounds good on paper, but people want face-to-face meetings. They want you to be in the major markets. There still has to be face-to-face interaction. With all the technology that exists, all the high-tech has to be balanced with the high-touch. There has to be more high-touch, because technology is not going to take the place of the face-to-face and interpersonal relationships. People still want that interplay.

Technology has killed the interpersonal relationship with no discussions taking place.

Forty-eight years ago, I made the cold call to Ray Kroc, and that’s how we got the McDonald’s business. Today, you still need those kinds of relationships and skills.

The one key is the dependence on technology. You need to have confrontation, discussion, otherwise it’s a one-way street that will never work.

McDonald’s has been a client of Golin-Harris for many, many years. What do you credit the longevity to, and how have you handled the ongoing crises that have been brought up by such movies as Super Size Me?

The longevity is best answered by what a key executive once told me – you always treated us like you just got us.

That’s the key. We never have taken them for granted, even after all these years. That is the danger of any long-term relationship. You have to keep it exciting, and new.

As for Super Size Me, our counsel was to not over-react. They would have loved to have sued the filmmaker, which would have given them more credence. That would have been a great disaster. You have to take it seriously, but don’t overreact.

For 48 years, GolinHarris has handled McDonald’s for all these years. At the time, no one had heard of them, and now they are the lightning rod. It was just a cold call to Ray Kroc.

The founders of McDonald’s, Ray Kroc and Joan Kroc, were heavily involved in philanthropic endeavors. She left all her money to charities, $1.5B to the Salvation Army, $50M to public radio, and other amounts to other various charities. Why leave it all to kids, because it’s too much money to leave them was her belief. A former PR person from McDonald’s was the executor of her will. As people and a corporation, they were always involved in the community.

Many PR firms started as family businesses, or have had family members join the organization.

I have one son that works in technology in London, and two daughters. One went into the communications business, and was recently the communications director of the Chicago Mercantile; she just resigned and is now on her own in Chicago targeting mainly financially-related clients. She went into the industry, but did not come to GolinHarris because she did not want to be accused of favoritism. I salute her for doing it on her own.

It’s difficult sometimes to bring the children into the business. It’s dangerous for them and key senior people. For the children, they have to prove twice as hard that they deserve to be there. For key executives, it turns off your key people. The thought may be that the children had no where else to go, and since key executives’ names aren’t the same as the ones on the door, that they have no place to go in the organization.

You have had a home in Phoenix for the past 10 years. Has there ever been any thought of opening an office here, or targeting Phoenix businesses?

It would interfere with my golf game, but seriously, I don’t think the market is quite ready for a GH office yet. One of these days it could be a viable market, though.

Would it be possible to build a huge, multi-national agency these days the way you, Daniel Edelman and the others did?

Yes, there is still opportunity. It would be difficult to build that network, but it’s still possible.

To build a large, global agency, it takes capital to either acquire a firm or start from scratch, and not many agencies have that capital available without help from a larger entity.

Any last words or advice for PR people?

My favorite expression is “fix it BEFORE it breaks.” We should all have the courage to change things before we have to.

Jeremy Pepper is the CEO and founder of POP! Public Relations, a public relations firm based in Arizona, USA.

He authors the popular Musings from POP! Public Relations blog which offers Jeremy’s opinions and views – on public relations, publicity and other things.

PR Face2Face: Al Golin, Chairman, GolinHarris
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