PR legend Al Golin dies at 87

The iconic founder of Golin passed away Saturday morning at his second home in Scottsdale, Arizona.

PR icon Al Golin has died at the age of 87.
PR icon Al Golin has died at the age of 87.

CHICAGO: Al Golin, one of the founders of the modern PR industry who was most closely associated with McDonald's, has died.

Golin will always be indelibly linked with McDonald's after he cold-called Ray Kroc in 1956 and helped the founder of the fledgling restaurant chain grow to become one of the world's most admired brands. The relationship started as a $500 monthly retainer and 60 years later had evolved into the longest-lasting client-agency partnership in PR.

The relationship ultimately led to the formation of his Chicago-based PR agency GolinHarris, now known as Golin, which to this day still numbers McDonald's as one of its largest clients.

In an interview with PRWeek in 2001, Golin described that call as his biggest break. "It was a cold call, which should give hope to anyone selling. He said 'come on over', we talked and I started on Monday. He was a good client as he was very receptive," Golin recalled.

Golin was still active in the Interpublic Group-owned agency, providing counsel even in his final weeks, and had not formally retired. Over the past 60 years, Golin has grown from those fledgling roots on McDonald's into a 1,500-strong agency with revenues in excess of $200 million.

Fred Cook, former CEO and now chairman of Golin, explained that agency staffers had been informed of Golin's deterioration in health a couple of weeks ago and since then Al had been "flooded with messages from all over the world about how much he meant to them."

"Al's name is on our door but it is much more his character that defines who we are," added Cook. "He was a hard-working, honest, humorous guy who defined what made our culture special and I have strived over the past 30 years to extend that culture and honor his legacy."

GolinHarris rebranded in 2014 as Golin, but didn't actually start with either Al Golin or his business partner Tom Harris.

After securing the contract with McDonald’s in 1956, Golin's name was added to the firm’s branding two years later.

"I got a job doing publicity for MGM Pictures, thinking it would lead to movie production. I never got into that – I stayed in this industry," recalled Golin in another interview with PRWeek, in 2008. "I joined a guy from a small agency in Chicago named [Max] Cooper. Shortly afterward, I made [the] cold call to Ray Kroc, who was running restaurants around Chicago. That sort of launched our business."

The firm rebranded as Cooper, Burns & Golin in 1958, then changed to Cooper & Golin in 1965 after partner Ben Burns departed. In 1975, the agency’s name changed to Golin Communications after Cooper left.

In 1981, the shop was again rebranded as Golin/Harris to reflect the contributions of then-president Harris.

Golin was named one of the 100 Most Influential PR People of the 20th Century by PRWeek and inducted into the inaugural PRWeek Hall of Fame in 2013 alongside another PR agency pioneer and legend, Harold Burson. The duo appeared on stage together to receive their honors.

Source: PRWeek and GolinHarris

"Dan [Edelman], Harold [Burson], and Al are three pioneers of the industry, and now only Harold is left," said Cook. "We've lost a legend, somebody who was a founding father of PR."

One of Golin's mottos was "fix it before it breaks" and he referred to this in 2011 when the then GolinHarris completely changed its operating model into a revolutionary g4 system that eschewed traditional PR job titles, rather deploying staff in groups of strategists, creators, connectors, or catalysts. The bold bid was aimed at doubling the size of the IPG firm over the next decade.

"Al was always innovative in his time, even in his eighties when we announced g4," remembered Cook. "Al was all in on g4 and thought it was a great idea, even when some of our senior management were skeptical."

Golin was born in Chicago in 1929 to Charles and Jeanette Golin. His older brother, Ted, passed away last year. Golin spent his youth playing tennis, attending Bears and Cubs games at Wrigley Field just blocks away from the family home, and working at the movie theater owned by his father.

He spent several years working as a publicist in the Chicago office of MGM Studios during the early 1950s, supporting legendary actors such as Esther Williams, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Robert Taylor - before his momentous call to McDonald's Kroc.

In his time working with Kroc, and every McDonald’s leader since, Golin was a trusted adviser who helped create or expand famous programs including Ronald McDonald House Charities™, the McDonald’s All-American High School Basketball Game™, and The McDonald’s All-American High School Band.

Current McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook said in a statement: "McDonald’s owes Al a tremendous debt of gratitude for all he accomplished in his partnership with us. We have benefited for decades from his wisdom and leadership, from his friendship and his support."

He published many of his successful business strategies in a book Trust or Consequences in 2003, which promoted trust as an essential element of brand equity, longevity, and survival.

Golin received lifetime achievement awards from the PRSA, Publicity Club of Chicago, the PRSA Gold Anvil Award and Arthur W. Page Society Hall of Fame Award for "Career Achievements and Outstanding Contributions to the Profession."

His legacy lives on through McDonald’s annual Al Golin Trust Bank Award, established in 1992, and Al’s Day – a global day of service to honor Golin's strong belief in giving back to the community. Each year around Al’s birthday, Golin offices around the world close their doors and employees collectively participate in service activities to help make a difference in their local communities.

He was also the recipient of the IPR's Lifetime Achievement Alexander Hamilton Medal in 2009 and Roosevelt University’s Distinguished Service Award in 2005. He served for 30 years on the board of directors of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and 16 years on the board of trustees for Roosevelt University in Chicago, the school from which he graduated in 1950. He served as a PRSA Fellow and received honorary doctorate degrees from DePaul University and Roosevelt University.

Golin passed away in his sleep early Saturday morning after a long battle with prostate cancer. He is survived by his wife of over 55 years, June; children Barry, Karen, and Ellen; six grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

A memorial service will be held in Golin's honor in Chicago on a date to be determined. The family has asked that donations should be made in lieu of flowers to Ronald McDonald House Charities, Off the Street Club, Goodman Theatre, or Roosevelt University.

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