2004 Hall of Fame Award Acceptance Speech

Al Golin
2004 Hall of Fame Award Acceptance Speech
Al Golin

"Fix It Before It Breaks"

I really don't deserve this honor – but, I guess I also don't deserve a bad back either.

But, seriously, when I consider the previous recipients of the Hall of Fame Award, I'm even more grateful for this recognition. Still, I think I'm accepting it under false pretenses. I'm told my induction into the Page Hall of Fame relates to my "work" in the industry for almost 50 years. But, I really have never considered what I've been doing lo these many years as work. Rather, I've lived by the words of a wise old man, who gave me good advice when I was starting out. He said, "Find a job you like – and you'll never work a day in your life." That's what I've done, and today I feel sorry for those people who always seem to dread going into the office most Monday mornings.

I've seen a lot of Monday mornings in my day, enough that people often ask if I ever intend to retire. When they do, a song by Stephen Sondheim, one of my favorite composers, comes to mind. His tune, "I'm Still Here" seems to be my theme song these days.

Besides, I know I'll never be in the "Hall of Fame" for my golf game – so I have all the more reason to continue going to the office almost every day.

And now, thanks to you, I have another.

As I considered the honor of joining the Page Hall of Fame – and the careers of those who entered before me – I naturally reflected on my own career. And I've come to realize how lucky we are to be able to do what we do for a living. It's never dull, it's always challenging, and it's constantly changing.

One of the great parts of our business is its youthful face and its commonality of purpose. I've been fortunate to be surrounded by young, energetic people, and when I visit some of our offices throughout the world, I'm always amazed to discover the similarity of people in our industry. They may look different in Taiwan than they do in Chicago, but their business acumen, creativity and enthusiasm is contagious.

Ours is a business that can't help but keep you young. You have to be curious and probing, and above all, current on what is happening today – and perceptive enough to forecast tomorrow. Ever since I was a kid, I remember reading the newspaper every night before dinner. I wish my grandkids had the same interest. That latent curiosity, I think, helped propel me into the PR business.

I began this journey some 48 years ago when I joined a small PR firm in Chicago, coming from my first job in the promotion department of MGM Pictures, where I thought it would lead to a career in movie production. About a year later, I made a phone call that proved to be a turning point in my life.

Actually it was October 10, 1957 – but who's counting? I made a cold call to a man named Ray Kroc who had a handful of the old red and white McDonald's around the Chicago area.

Ray asked me to come right over to discuss his fledgling 15-cent hamburger business – and after a half-hour, he said: "You're hired for $500 a month. And you can start Monday." When Ray told Harry Sonneborn, then president of the company, Harry hit the ceiling. He roared at Ray: "Why the hell are you hiring a PR firm, when you and I can't even afford to draw our salaries?" For the first few years of our relationship, I tried to avoid bumping into Harry, as I didn't want to remind him of the $500 a month they were spending. (I'm happy to report that we finally got an increase last year.)

In those early years, our role was based on delivering two audiences: 1) customers and 2) potential ranchisees. Our efforts were linked to new restaurant openings and to building awareness of the McDonald's concept in the local community. In those days, and for quite a few years later, McDonald's couldn't afford advertising, and public relations had to build both awareness and credibility.

In those days, we didn't have much to go on besides our instincts. If it seemed right and it appeared to be working, we kept doing it. This community involvement was part of their culture from the very beginning – and still is today, even with their huge advertising budget. I coined the term "Trust Bank" for all the community involvement – which helped them build "deposits" of goodwill in case they might need it for a "withdrawal" when a crisis or sensitive issue arose. I'm happy to say that the term has stuck with the McDonald's lexicon all these years. And I'm proud that other companies have incorporated it into their own vocabularies.

Today, more than ever, the concept of the Trust Bank should be central to every business out there. But you don't need to take my word for it. Our firm just completed a new study on Corporate Citizenship and American business. The two most important factors that emerged when evaluating the individual companies were: 1) ethical, honest, responsible business practices, including executive behavior; and 2) how a company treats its employees. These are essential to trust internally and externally – people want to do business with and work for a company they trust.

As an aside, I'm glad to see that employees want to draw a check from a boss they trust. We're finding renewed interest in employee relations these days, and I can remember when this area was treated as the "stepchild" of communications. It was considered an entry level or a dead-end job for people in our business. Now, companies understand their people have a more sophisticated understanding of business and expect a more sophisticated explanation of company strategy from their leaders. For my part, I've always tried to be visible among my co-workers – eager to answer their questions and seek their opinions. In fact, I recently did my standard lunch session with our summer interns, and as always, they were very attentive. Of course, the stories I've told repeatedly to others are new to them, so I am working with a captive, new audience.

And whenever I have the chance, I reiterate my own twist on the old adage: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Actually, it's my most un-favorite saying. I've always said: "Fix it before it breaks."

We should all have the courage to change things before we have to. Sometimes familiarity can breed contempt.

I think JFK (Kennedy, that is, not Kerry) said it: "The time to fix a roof is when the sun is shining." Nothing could be more true.

In any case, whenever I meet with the interns, they usually ask a couple of questions that help me evaluate what I've done over the years. There are two questions they always ask: "What have you done that you're most proud of? And, "What do you regret not doing?" I like the last question because it's something I can do something about and perhaps help others in our profession. So we come back to my tried-and-true tagline: "Fix it before it breaks." It really boils down to "going with your gut feeling." When we've had a long-standing relationship with a client and I observe our account team seemingly pleasing a client, sometimes, I've been reluctant to rock the boat when I know that our team might be wrong for the account. The same thing can happen when I've been talked out of a good idea when I know it makes sense. We've had some of our greater successes when we "stuck to our guns" when the naysayers tried to play it safe.

I've heard too many of our colleagues complain that they're the "Rodney Dangerfields" of their companies – they get no respect. We have to earn that respect with our CEOs and clients – through a solid understanding of the companies we represent – and the willingness to take a stand for a position that may not be popular but we know is right. However, too many of us are thinking of the headline – and not the bottom line.

In our business, we must take risks – and learn to love it. If you play "not to lose" rather than "to win," you'll never be a success.

Now, some people might see an upside to this: Play it conservatively, and you may hold your job forever – maybe; you'll certainly never make a mistake that way. But I believe you'll also never really reach your potential – unless you raise the bar.

Once again, Stephen Sondheim's lyrics say it best. His song called "Everybody Says Don't" sums up this philosophy:

"Don't walk on the grass. Don't disturb the peace. Don't upset the cart."

It ends with "Maybe you're going to fail. This time a ripple. Next time a wave. Don't be afraid."

Albert Einstein once said: "Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new."

The Enrons, Tycos, Worldcoms and the others have inadvertently given our industry a big lift. Thanks to factors like the ever-growing media microscope, instantaneous Internet news, quizzical employees, society's insatiable appetite for gossip and our voyeuristic, need-to-know mentality, CEOs' every step and misstep are closely monitored. The once arrogant, greedy CEOs that some of us have known have suddenly found "religion." As a result, corporate leaders are listening to their PR counselors and staff a lot more these days, while discovering that greed is not always good – and realizing their employees and prospective employees want to work for companies they're proud of.

Some of the most impressive CEOs I've encountered know that it's important to practice humility even when you have a lot to brag about. My twist on a line from an old Mel Brooks movie, is: "If you've got it, you don't need to flaunt it."

It's gratifying to witness the Arthur Page Principles becoming fashionable these days to certain CEOs who probably regarded them as unrealistic, naïve, or soft and fuzzy values until recently.

I believe CEOs these days know that public trust is the currency of good public relations that is accumulated and used in the same way capital is used in a broader business sense. I hope they now realize that the Page Principles are not a defensive philosophy. They are really designed to reinforce leadership.

Paul Holmes reported on a recent MBA study, confirming this. Some 97 percent of MBAs from 11 major American and European universities say that they were willing to forego financial benefits to work for an ethical organization that is socially responsible. This never would have happened a few years ago.

Even Michael Porter has become a believer. I saw the famed Harvard Business School professor on Charlie Rose recently and he said he admitted that he was wrong originally on the role of corporate philanthropy. He said that there was a direct link from corporate social responsibility to economic success. Not only can't government do it all, but it's just good business for a company to get involved in social and cultural issues.

In the early days of my career, most of us tried to motivate our audience to do what we wanted them to do. Today, it's more realistic to position our products and services so it coincides with what people are going to do anyway.

I think we all have to be humble enough to know that the power to persuade is limited. Success these days comes from reading the public mind, not manipulating it.

As many of you might recall, my latest – and first – book was published last fall, and dealt with a word near and dear to me: trust. I'm delighted the Page Society has a new and exciting book dealing with this subject – with chapters written by some of the most enlightened CEOs in the world.

A great quote from British author, G. K. Chesterton illustrates the point that the buck really stops at the CEO's desk. Chesterton said: "I've searched all the parks in all the cities – and found no statues of committees."

Even before I was finally persuaded to write this book, I thought that if I ever wrote a book about my career, I had the perfect title. It sums up how I've worked, and I know all of you can relate to it as well. We've all worked behind the scenes, giving sound advice to our clients and bosses to make them look good and sound smart. So the title was: "When Is It My Turn?"

Well, thanks to this wonderful honor you've given me, I'm happy to discard the title. My wife, June, who among her many talents, likes to say that her main mission in life is to keep me humble, just said: "It is your turn."

One of my favorite quotes from George Bernard Shaw sums up my life these days. He said: "You don't stop playing because you grow old. You grow old because you stop playing."

Thanks again for this very meaningful tribute, as it gives me another reason to keep playing.