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By Charles Ebeling, for the Chicago Literary Club

Presented 1/29/18 at the Cliff Dwellers

Copyright 2018 Charles Ebeling


All of us have become casual spokespeople for others at sometime in our lives. As a youth, who hasn’t spoken out for another kid, or as an adult, for a family member or a good friend or colleague? Being a spokesman professionally just means a little more training, a little more study of the issues, a little more pressure, a little more often, and the chance to get paid at least a little for doing it.

John D. Rockefeller sort of summed up the business of spokesmanship when he explained, “Next to doing the right thing, the most important thing is to let people know you are doing the right thing.”

Over the past half century, I’ve served as a public relations strategist and spokesperson for the Army, on the staffs of four Fortune 500 companies, for two global PR consultancies, and since retirement, as a board leader and occasional spokesperson for a half dozen not-for-profits. Maybe after tonight at the podium, I’ll start cutting back. Just maybe.

Meanwhile, I’ll pull back the curtain a little on the smoky world of spokesmanship. I’ve titled this essay “Spoke Smoke” not because “where there’s smoke there’s fire,” though sometimes there is. The reputation of spokespeople has seldom been stellar, sometimes because they are not good at their job, and sometimes because the content they spout on behalf of others is nonsensical, deceiving or confusing.

As playwright George Bernard Shaw explained, “The problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred.”

What personal qualities make a good spokesman? Having the right title? Saying whatever the boss would say? Being theatrical? Not really. No one cares what the spokesman’s title is. Though some would like to hear from the chief executive officer directly, others would find a line worker in an organization just as credible. What they want is someone who knows and states the facts. As for content, a good spokesman isn’t just a shadow for the boss, he or she needs to be able to have a good grasp of the issues and put management’s views in context for the listener. As for theatricality, leave that for Saturday Night Live and the celebrity spokespeople.

Not every spokesperson has the celebrity quality of a Ronald Reagan for GE, nor William Shatner for Priceline or Flo the Progressive Girl, or even the peripatetic Geico gecko. In today’s world, a spokesperson should avoid the hype and simply be articulate and sincere.

A recent example demonstrates where a CEO might have better stayed home and let a competent professional spokesperson take the mike, armed with facts and humility. This was the case last April when United Airlines allowed a passenger to be dragged from their seat. United Airlines’ stock plummeted after videos of a passenger being violently dragged off an overbooked plane circulated on the Internet. At first, United stood by the forceful removal of the passenger but then issued a cold apology, with the company’s CEO saying, “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.” After intense backlash and boycott threats, United took full responsibility and finally made the apology that it should have made immediately.

By this point, it was too late for consumers and the public to be appeased. United’s consumer perception dropped to a 10-year low following this incident and the company’s handling of it. A meaningful company crisis communications plan would have identified that a sincere apology should have been made during the immediate aftermath of the incident. As Warren Buffet says, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation, and 5 minutes to ruin it.” U.S. trust in business plummeted by eight percentage points last year, leaving us just five points ahead of Russia, the land of the oligarchs.

There is no larger reputation story than that being played out today at the pinnacle of national politics. It might have started, as the Washington Post reported, when back in the 80s and 90s, Manhattan journalists began to hear from a so-called spokesman for developer Donald Trump named “John Miller” or “John Barron.” They were purported public-relations men who sounded precisely like Trump — who in fact was Trump himself, masquerading as an unusually helpful and boastful advocate for himself, according to the journalists and several of Trump’s top aides.

Fast forward to the Presidential election of 2016, when we became painfully aware of some of the even deeper pitfalls of spokesmanship. A shadowy political operative named Sean Spicer emerged to become a household target of mockery — for many of us, with statements such as, “The President’s tweets speak for themselves.” His daily performances as White House Press Secretary, were topped weekly by Melissa McCarthy’s merciless, yet revealing transgender parodies of him on Saturday Night Live.

We don’t know whether Sean Spicer accurately reflected the views of his boss, the T-man, when he persisted with “alternative facts” on the size of the inaugural crowd, made an ignorantly inappropriate Hitler reference and later hid in the White House bushes from the President, among numerous other performances, eroding the image of a spokesperson in the minds of many.

It didn’t take too long before he lost his job, too. In a Monmouth university poll, 42% of respondents said Spicer hurt the President while only 28% said he helped. As for the President, as Harry Truman said: “All the President is, is a glorified public relations man who spends his time flattering, kissing and kicking people to get them to do what they are supposed to do anyway.”

Spicer’s successor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in the minds of some, is even more a parody of a credible spokesperson, raging against the “fake news.” Maybe this depends on your politics, but my view is that the personalities of these spokespeople have often gotten in the way of the content, and their loyalties, in this case unfortunately, have gotten in the way of truth. Thanks to them, the reputation of spokespeople everywhere was taken down several notches, from a level that was already not very high. As Abe Lincoln himself put it, “What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives himself.”

Back when he was running for President, Dwight Eisenhower tapped James Hagerty, a former reporter for the New York Times to be his press liaison, thus becoming the first full time well-credentialed Presidential Press Secretary. Hagerty had previously served as a press secretary when New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey ran for the presidency.

Hagerty’s experience as a journalist and skills in media relations helped him perform his role more effectively. The New York Times’ John McQuiston commented that having spent years as a reporter on the other side of the news barrier, helped his credibility.

At Hagerty’s first meeting with White House reporters on January 21, 1953, he laid down ground rules that are still largely a model for how a credible press secretary might operate. He said: “I would like to say to you fellows that I am not going to play any favorites, and I’m not going to give out any exclusive stories about the President or the White House.

When I say to you, ‘I don’t know,’ I mean I don’t know. When I say, ‘No comment,’ it means I’m not talking, but not necessarily any more than that. Aside from that, I’m here to help you get the news. I am also here to work for one man, who happens to be the President. And I will do that to the best of my ability.”

. Of course, in today’s world, what some call “spin” or more currently, “fake news,” is meant as an indictment of the news media themselves. I recently saw a photo of a fellow at a 2016 political rally wearing a T-shirt that read “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required.” So perhaps I should not lament so much about the burdens of life of a mere spokesperson. Both spokespeople and journalists can often, these days, hear the refrain, “Don’t shoot the messenger,” running through their thoughts.

For tens of thousands of spokepeople in all walks of life – celebrity, politics and government, business, sports, not-for-profits, the military, and for the communications media, establishing credibility as a spokesman has become a greater challenge than ever. The concept of “spoke smoke,” a term I’ve invented for the sometimes questionable content of those who speak for others, has increasingly become the image that private citizens attach to the effluence flowing from the mouths of those designated the spokeman or spokeswoman for a cause, a party, a personality, an issue or an event.

“Spoke Smoke” equals “fake news” to many.

The role of those people selected to represent the views and news of others isn’t changing, but their generalized public persona certainly has suffered. Let’s take a closer look at spokesmanship, what it’s all about and how it is changing in today’s world of instantaneous communications. While some like to hear from the chief executive office, that’s not always such a good idea.

For example: A good spokesperson is vital to any business or organization. Still not sure? Then let’s take the well-used example of Tony Hayward who was CEO of BP during the Deep-Water Horizon oil spill in the Mexican Gulf in 2010 where over 87days the damaged wellhead leaked more than 130 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Not only did Mr. Hayward tell the media that the Gulf of Mexico was “relatively tiny” compared with the “very big ocean,” he also commented that he wanted the whole episode to be over, as he would like his life back. He was then photographed racing his sailing yacht in Europe. He showed an apparent disregard for the eleven men who lost their lives when the oil rig exploded and caused the largest accidental ocean spill in history. The lesson, as PR veteran Samra Bufkins put it: “If the public thinks you have a problem, you have a problem.”

Tony Hayward showed perfectly how not to do it, becoming in the process the then most hated man in America. He wasn’t prepared, he didn’t respond to the real issues and worst of all he showed very little sympathy. Mr. Hayward was heavily criticized for his comments about the tragedy and was repeatedly called to step down from his position as CEO. BP managed the whole crisis communications situation so badly that even President Barack Obama said that Hayward “wouldn’t be working for me after any of those statements.” Hayward was soon replaced as CEO of BP.

The lesson? As historian and professor Daniel Boorstin says, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some hire public relations officers.”

My first experience as a spokesman was a by-product of a surprisingly successful experiment in college politics, back in the mid-60s. My new college roommate was an old friend from back home who had transferred to Bradley University from the University of Mississippi. He was an articulate fellow who made friends easily, and over a conversation one evening about the new trend towards co-ed dorms, we hatched a plan. He would run for student council president, even though almost no one yet knew him, on a theme that Bradley ought to be more liberal about student rights. I would be his campaign manager, and create the messages, the speaking platforms and the printed materials to support his crusade. He would simply be the face of change.

We lost the election to a more serious, well known and much more deserving student candidate, but the surprising thing to us was that we came in a very close second. The messages I created for him and the communications channels we exploited to deliver those messages almost put us over the top. My undergraduate major was journalism, with a specialty in public relations, and through that election experiment I learned a valuable lesson about the serious power of spokesmanship and the application of the communications tools that surround it. I also learned that PR and spokesmanship could be used for good, but also for not-so-good.

Many people don’t realize that at least 50% of news media coverage originates from public relations sources. After all, the news has to come from somewhere, and it’s nothing new that news media are chronically understaffed. In today’s age of exploding social media taking the place of traditional newspapers and magazines for many, it should not be surprising that editorial and news staffs at major news outlets have been further cut. Steven Colbert’s satirical show coined the word “truthiness” to describe something that someone believes without analysis, logic or evidence of support, as is often the case on social media. In this era, public relations people have become even more influential factors in the world of communications.

Here’s a CEO who made a big splash as his own spokesperson some years back. He became a pitchman who had a logical reason to convince people to buy a car. Once a Ford executive, Lee Iacocca took the job as Chrysler CEO and decided to speak for the company himself. His famous sales pitch: “If you find a better car, buy it.”

That’s some straightforward honesty, and it worked for Chrysler. They were struggling through the early 80s, but Iacocca and his frank TV spots helped the auto manufacturer regain sales and get out of debt. And celebrity spokesman Ricardo Montalban reassured consumers that “rich cordovan leather” awaited them in their new Chryslers.

My real life indoctrination into spokesmanship was a failed bargain I made with the devil himself, during the Vietnam War. I had earned an Army commission after graduation, and had been assigned to the staff of the Army War College, as an operations officer. I really wanted to gain some military experience in public relations, so I applied to the Department of Defense Information School for their officer’s career course in public affairs. This is the school where every military service’s communications people learn their craft. To be accepted, I had to volunteer to be assigned to Vietnam. I knew that when I graduated, I’d have only 6 months of service commitment remaining. A tour of duty in Vietnam was then one year, so I thought the Army would not even bother to send me over there. I was wrong, and after graduation was promptly assigned to serve as a press escort officer at the press camp closest to the border with North Vietnam.

While at the Information School we had been indoctrinated with the philosophy that our mission was to provide the press with “maximum disclosure with minimum delay.” The reality was that we were directed by higher headquarters to be more helpful as “connectors” between news media people who were friendlier to the government war effort. Our government sometimes had an agenda, and press officers as spokespeople were obligated to that agenda. I was lucky enough to come home safely from Vietnam, but I had learned a valuable lesson about the limits of spokesmanship. About what a later generation would come to know as “spin.”

Back in civilian life it was often just as challenging being a spokesperson. It involved much more than just speaking the words. A spokesperson is first and foremost someone who the top leadership of an organization trusts, and who can be relied upon to reflect both the tone and content of what that leadership wants communicated. A spokesperson must be both a resourceful internal reporter within the organization, but also someone with the judgment and experience to determine where, when, how and what information to present, and who to speak to, and have the presence, loyalty and maturity to handle it all well under pressure.

One of the first professional lessons a spokesperson learns is that a press conference is usually the last choice as a venue to communicate to the news media. Why? One question is: Is the news important enough to attract the press – will anyone want to attend? Second, is the information important enough that members of the press will come out to hear the same things at the same time their news media competition will hear it? Every reporter prefers an exclusive or private interview. And lastly, where to hold a press conference is a big issue. Where and why will the press be willing to turn up? The loneliest podium in the world is the one with no one in front of it.

The best way to hold an interview is to meet a reporter eye-to-eye, so personal rapport can be established, and nuance can be communicated. Next preference these days is contact by Skype or phone, for many of the same reasons. Least desirable is by text or email, where nuance is difficult to determine and intent may be confused.

But spokesmanship often takes place in crisis situations, in which events are rapidly unfolding, and something must be said, even with incomplete information or direction. This is where the spokesman is on the spot, and must come through.

Mike Love, who headed public relations in the UK and Europe for McDonald’s for 13 years, had previously served as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s spokesman. He ominously tells us, “When the voice on the other end of a mobile phone call starts by asking, “are you driving – then you should pull over” you just know this is not going to be good news.”

He continued, “The Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher came on the line. I listened. The call was brief, but more than appreciated at such a moment. I mumbled something about unswerving loyalty and everybody doing what needed to be done. A statement would be issued in 30 minutes confirming she had decided not to go forward for re-election in the second round of voting. She had informed the Queen and the Cabinet of her intention and within 30 minutes the public announcements would be made.” Mike was then Mrs. Thatcher’s political agent and his job was to manage the fall-out in her constituency from her announcement that she was stepping down from office.

He spent the next several days giving interviews to local, and then national and international media. He recalls that, for him, was an unusual moment in the spotlight. As a political agent, his main job had been to be a behind-the -scenes person who helped make things happen, who wrote the words coming from the mouths of others, to organize events and platforms, but not to speak his own words, as he put it. He recalls that similar experiences at a relatively young age were more than great preparation for his later career as a director of international communications for organizations such as McDonald’s, Microsoft and British Telecom. Each of those roles involved managing the media relations for high profile issues and crises.

Like me, Mike Love reflects that at McDonald’s almost everything in life happened every day somewhere in the world. There was the potential for a crisis almost every day, often requiring counsel from our corporate home office. He observed that crisis media communications work is more often than not concerned with the opposite of proactive consumer and brand PR, and that often no news really is often good news.

Another former associate of mine, Walt Riker, who succeeded me as global spokesperson for McDonald’s, was a former newsman who went on to become, for 13 years, press secretary to Bob Dole, long time Senate majority Leader and one-time Presidential contender. Walt comments: “Being a spokesman isn’t for the squeamish. It’s all about being ready to stand on the firing line 24/7, for good news, for bad news, tragic news or news you can’t even imagine. You have to be quick on your feet, creative, deeply informed on the issues, and willing to stand tall even as critics and tough reporters try to trip you up. It is pressure packed, unpredictable and filled with risk. One wrong quote and you will be second-guessed and criticized from every side, including your own. Believe me, there isn’t a spokesperson in the world who hasn’t made a mistake, or two. In fact, one day, working for Dole, a misquote from me crashed the wheat market.”

Walt recalled one night in Orlando, Florida, while working for McDonald’s at their global franchisee convention. He stumbled from his bed to the ringing phone. As he said, his job was “to answer that phone, every day, every hour of my seventeen years with McDonald’s. I soon heard a familiar company voice, saying ‘Walt. This is bad. Jim Cantalupo, who was company CEO, is dead.’ “ In a few hours, Cantalupo would have been addressing 17,000 enthusiastic members of the global McDonald’s family at the brand’s global convention. And instead, in a few hours Walt would be addressing reporters from around the world calling to get comments about this staggering and tragic event. For the next three days he answered countless questions but never wavered from McDonald’s core message – they were prepared to meet the challenges of this unexpected tragedy. The company had anticipated the eventuality of such an extreme disruption to its business. The board met within hours of Jim’s passing, and had elected a new CEO; a smooth transition was already underway and the board was moving ahead, not only with its convention, but also with McDonald’s business strategies and leadership in place.

You might wonder why people like Mike Love in the UK and Walt Riker here at McDonald’s headquarters, myself and dozens of other senior communications people were needed for what might be described as “just a hamburger company.” But keep in mind that McDonald’s employs some 1 ½ million people in more than 100 countries and interfaces face to face with 70 million customers, a day, in 37,000 retail locations. Not only does everything, from birth to death, from weddings to mayhem, that happens in human life occur at a McDonald’s every day, but the company is also a bellwether of the stock market, one of the Dow Jones 30 Industrials, and one of the best known, most ubiquitous and therefore most controversial consumer brands on the globe. That adds up to a lot of balls in the air.

One of the most challenging balls that were bouncing around and fluttering in the air when I joined McDonald’s corporately was the challenge of rebuilding a relationship with the surviving McDonald brother, Dick, who sold out to Ray Kroc in 1960 under a cloud of acrimony and mistrust, and then had no contact with the company for 25 years, until after Kroc’s death in late 1984. I joined the company to head corporate communications in early 1985, and was soon assigned to go to work to rebuild the non-relationship with the man whose name was on our door.

For the next 13 years, I folded Dick and his family back into the global McDonald’s family, often meeting him at his New Hampshire home, and honoring him through events at the Smithsonian, in Congress, at the Ford Museum, at the site of he and his brother Mac’s original McDonald’s in San Bernardino, at visits with company leaders and in tons of media interviews. Even the Wall Street Journal featured Dick and me in a front page center story discussing the new relationship. While he and I and our chairman Fred Turner became fast friends over that 13 years until his death in 1998, his family still continues the now ancient feud today, and received 7 million dollars to see their divisive version of the Ray Kroc relationship in last year’s Hollywood film featuring Michael Keeton called “The Founder.”

Over the years I served as head of media relations worldwide for McDonald’s, I didn’t carry home a crisis plan each night, but a briefcase filled with phone numbers and later, email addresses. I had on hand all the corporate key contacts, the security people, the medical, legal, political, financial and public relations advisors available to the company, whom I might notify and seek advice from in the event of disaster.

My staff and I never hesitated to wake up or seek out, the CEO, CFO, CMO or even the Board Chairman, if there were an event or development they should know of, or provide direction. One time among many, I had to track down the CEO regarding a critical, urgent question from a prominent publication. He was on vacation somewhere in Mexico, and his assistant had been directed not to bother him under any circumstances. I insisted and persisted, and after I had roused him from a nap by the pool with a call to his private cell number, and received the answer I needed, he said to me, in total sincerity, “Chuck, sometime in the future, I want you to track me down again, to the ends of the earth like you just did, and instead of assaulting me with a horrendous question, just tell me a dirty joke.” We laughed.

I’m reminded of another time our CEO Mike Quinlan had a good laugh at my expense. He was warming up a room of key security analysts in New York City, before leading a financial presentation about future prospects for our global company. He commented to the august group, “Sometimes I wonder if you take McDonald’s seriously, since our chief spokesman is a clown,” referring implicitly to McDonald’s mascot, Ronald McDonald. As the crowd snickered, one of the news media people assembled to cover the event in the back poked me, and cajoled, “He must have meant you.”

While I did serve as corporate communications officer for the company, my business card also said I served as chief spokesperson for the brand. I was very proud to have been acknowledged that way, as that was back in the day before the most credible spokesperson for many organizations became the lowliest line employee, and before CEOs enjoyed declining credibility.

In a world where companies have more credibility than governments and the news media, communications group Edelman has found only 44% trust the word of CEOs. There has been a surprising resurgence in trust in technical and academic experts. And while trust in journalists has recently increased in the double digits, trust by the general public in social media and search engines has plummeted in the past year.

Simply telling the truth can sometimes be a challenge while serving as a spokesperson. One old friend, who taught me much about how to communicate for a publicly- owned company, later went to work doing PR and investor relations for a prominent publically traded Florida development company. Management asked him to tell some lies about their growth prospects. He refused, and lost his job. Then one day, I picked up the Wall Street Journal and read about him telling the story of the company’s skullduggery, on the front page left column. Revenge is sweet, but I don’t think his career ever recovered.

My own career hit the bumps when my working relationship with an investigative journalist turned sour. He covered the food industry for the Wall Street Journal, and had taken issue with the company over concerns raised by some former franchisees and a handful of anonymous sources within the current franchisee ranks and some security analysts. His writing was so inflammatory and inaccurate that we eventually decided only to deal with him in writing, and make our case through other less-biased journalists. It took years, but we finally convinced his editor and publisher to come out to our Oak Brook home office to share a burger, fries and some straight talk with our CEO and myself to clear the air and reset our relationships.

In another situation, I caught a so-called trusted newsperson in their own deception, when my secretary told me the editor of a prominent Chicago business journal had called to ask the birthday of our CEO. It was a seemingly innocent question, but my curiosity was sparked. So I called him back myself and asked what was up. He acknowledged then that he was indeed writing an editorial, claiming our CEO was disconnected with Wall Street, and thus not doing his job. I immediately ran through details of our CEO’s recent active schedule of calls and direct meetings with security analysts in New York, some of which I had attended. But the editor ran the critical editorial commentary anyway, as if we hadn’t even talked.

A few weeks later, I was speaking to a graduate class in corporate PR at a prominent Chicago university, when a student asked me if I ever experienced unfairness from the news media. I told him the story, and suggested that the editor had acted in a “corrupt” way, because I had given him information that obviated a story line that someone had fed to him, and he had the temerity to run it anyway. My comment about the editor “leaked” because someone in the room with the students reported it to the media, and the next thing I knew, the Wall Street Journal, Business Week and other media were writing about how the McDonald’s PR guy had called a high level editor corrupt.

My board of directors compelled me to apologize, assuming a major publication must be placated on such a hot issue. On a flight to New York with the CEO on the company plane, I offered him my resignation. He paused for a second, and then said, “Forget it.” I later took the offending editor to breakfast to clear the air, and he asked me why I described him as corrupt. Speaking earlier to a class of graduate communications students, I had explained that I considered him to be intellectually corrupt because he wrote lies when he knew better, just to please one of his regular “sources” who perhaps wanted to short the stock. His reply: he said he could live with “intellectually corrupt.” It was then I remembered this adage from media training class: “Criticizing the news media is like wrestling with a pig. You are going to get dirty and the pig is going to love it.”

Most of those selected as spokespeople have experience and training that prepares them for the role. At McDonald’s we had hundreds of trained spokespeople around the world, dispersed to represent their local nationalities, geographies and areas of expertise.

Before I became McDonald’s chief spokesperson, I had 17 years as a public relations spokesperson with other companies. At Allstate Insurance, I was a company advocate for driver’s education and anti-drunk driver legislation. At Toyota, we promoted car safety. At Baxter Labs, we helped clarify complex medical therapies for the press.

Part of my own self-imposed portfolio at McDonald’s was to maintain more than 100 personal, first name relationships with key business writers, editors, on-air personalities and producers, meeting with them often at their offices around the globe and hosting them at ours, to tell the ongoing McDonald’s story, even when there was no breaking news.

We employed former news people and spokesmanship experts to train our top managers, board members, franchisees and suppliers on how to speak for and represent the business. We conducted these sessions all around the world, in small one-on-one situations to recreate the stress and atmosphere of real encounters with news media and consumers.

One of the most generous compliments I received when I retired was from an Australian, Charlie Bell, then president of McDonald’s Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa group, and later global corporate CEO, when he wrote, “You might remember when we met during a media training session. I listened intently to your words of wisdom and those words have served me well. In fact, I’ve built my entire McDonald’s career off what I learned from you.” Despite his hyperbole, the truth is that media spokesmanship training incorporates many of the elements of the kind of strategic “thought leader” training that has benefitted generations of successful organizational leaders in all walks of life.

But, there are also some media spokes-types who are not even people, yet can warm the hearts and convince millions to support their brand. Anheuser-Busch’s famous Clydesdales can’t use words to sell their product but that hasn’t stopped them from selling millions of beers and becoming iconic representatives of the Budweiser brand in the process.

The thumping Clydesdale spokes-horses made their first appearance in 1933 as a gift from the Busch sons to their father in celebration of the repeal of Prohibition. The sight of Busch Sr. and his two sons moved to tears over the gift of Clydesdales inspired the “crying in your beer” phrase still heard in bars around the world to this day.

Since that tear-provoking debut, the champion Clydesdales, most frequently in a six-horse hitch, have appeared in countless commercials, appearances across the country and even alongside U.S. presidents, notwithstanding the current one, in inauguration parades. Marketing author Seth Godin summed it up well when he said, “People do not buy goods and services. They buy relations, stories and magic.”

Speaking of magic, my old friend and PR guru Tom Harris tells the story of the greatest spokesperson who never lived. Back during the Second World War, she was even named the 2nd most popular woman in America, after Eleanor Roosevelt. She was reportedly born in 1921 at a small town mill, later to become General Mills. Gold Medal flour was running a recipe contest, so the ad manager dreamed up a person named Betty to answer the many questions from entrants. The name was picked because it sounded, “cheery, wholesome and folksy.” The name of a beloved former company director was Crocker, so the invented spokes-baker became Betty Crocker. By the way, Ray Kroc, who bought rights to the McDonald’s brand from the brothers of that name, decided to keep the name for the business McDonald’s, because he felt it sounded like a good All-American name.

I decided the time was neigh to apply for an early retirement, after nearly a quarter century as a McDonald’s spokesman. Over that time, I had negotiated with Coretta Scott King, introduced franchisees to President Clinton on the White House lawn, played the kazoo at Carnegie hall in rehearsals with Lionel Hampton and shot miniature basketballs with a young Michael Jordan. I spoke every day with news people around the globe, cut ribbons at Ronald McDonald House openings, chaired annual shareholder meeting press conferences, launched new products alongside the Rockettes at Radio City Music Center, and routinely picked up the phone in the middle of the night during crises.

Stepping down from the Golden Arches on the cusp of the Millennium, I felt like a little like a 16-year-old going on summer vacation, but with a bigger allowance. I also shifted my energies into several not-for-profit causes, one of which was the Geneva Lake Conservancy, a regional land trust that protects natural habitat in the Lake Geneva area. The Conservancy also speaks out on local environmental issues that affect land and water. One such major issue became the fight to preserve Yerkes Observatory, America’s first astrophysical laboratory and still home to the world’s largest and still operating refracting telescope, the kind you look straight through like an old fashioned telescope. The revered University of Chicago, which created the famed observation facility at the time of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, decided to sell it off for development of a hotel/spa and home sites. The Yerkes property includes nearly 100 beautifully groomed acres running down to the lake, and has the last 550 feet of undeveloped shore land and woods along the lakeshore. It is both an environmental and historic treasure.

We at the Conservancy helped light a fire of community protest that mobilized lake residents and reached far beyond. As Conservancy chair, I found myself doing interviews with a score of newspapers and magazines, and appeared before the editorial boards of the Chicago Tribune and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The bottom line is that after a long year of this well-coordinated effort, the University reversed its decision, canceled the sale contract and fired the university executive who had been in charge of engineering the deal.

Now, more than 10 years on, the University continues to operate the observatory with a staff, including astronomers, as a unique educational site, and has reinvested in the facility, and its historic lakeside grounds, once trod by Native Americans. The facility remains today in pristine condition. Many people were involved in the complex choreography of saving Yerkes, and I take small credit for coming up with one line that said it all: “The University of Chicago has been accidental conservationists of this site of rare beauty and historic importance for more than 100 years, and it ought to stay that way.”

Not so successful have been my recent attempts to stimulate some remorse and a change of heart at my old employer to save the restored site of Ray Kroc’s first McDonald’s restaurant in suburban DesPlaines, first opened in 1955. The building and its iconic road sign were slated for demolition, ostensibly because of flooding issues, but more likely because of a company hyper-focused on reinventing itself, even at the expense of some of its heritage. I found myself defending this way station of post-war roadside history, even being interviewed in print and on WGN radio, where the host commented that President Trump is a big McDonald’s fan, and wondered if he might help spur renewed historic preservation. I responded that McDonald’s could do that themselves with the support of “their own orange-haired clown.” The host then noted that I was quite clearly a “happily retired former spokesperson” for the brand.

As in all professions, it is an honor to be able to stand tall for people, products, organizations and issues that we value. Trying our best to tell the truth in the process, while not being just another Siri or Alexa chatbot, can be most challenging, and sometimes satisfying. To paraphrase what Mark Twain said of public relations: “It is about a good story, well told. That’s why I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.”

The arc of connectiveness is indeed integral to the human condition, and spokespeople play a key role in realizing that in today’s world. At times we even deliver on opportunities to bring new clarity to vital issues and disperse that foggy “Spoke Smoke,”

Fifty years as a spokesperson have flown by, and that makes me think it’s about time for a break, as we used to say at McDonald’s. And for that I’ll be most grateful.


Chuck Ebeling earned a degree in journalism from Bradley University and also studied at the University of Chicago. He served in Vietnam and Chicago as an award-winning Army press officer, served on the corporate PR staffs as a strategist and spokesperson for Allstate Insurance, Toyota, Baxter International and McDonald’s Corporation. He has served in not-for-profit board leadership roles in the hunger relief, health care, environmental, historical, and literary fields.

Chuck also created the Ebeling PRize through which he supports and recognizes student community programs in cause-related communications at Bradley and Loyola of Chicago universities. In 2011, he was inducted into Bradley University’s Centurian Society, recognizing graduates who have become national or international leaders in their field.

“Spoke Smoke” is Chuck’s 14th essay presented to the Chicago Literary Club, of which he was President in 2016-17.



One thing not to be so thankful for this Thanksgiving week is that McDonald’s, the world’s largest restaurant business with 37,000 locations worldwide, announced that it has no room in the modern world for Ray Kroc’s first McDonald’s location in Des Plaines, Illinois. The historic non-operating museum restaurant, rebuilt to original plans on its original site in 1985, and since become a popular tourist destination, is slated to be demolished within a month, with relics preserved and land donated to the city.

Of course, the Des Plaines restaurant was actually the ninth McDonald’s ever built, including the McDonald brother’s very first location in San Bernardino, California, now long gone, except for a cement and bronze marker at the site (Update: Those commemorative bronze markers have since been chiseled out and stolen). But DesPlaines, now apparently destined for the same treatment, is where Kroc really launched the chain, attracting throngs of local customers while showing off the potential of the business to prospective franchisees. It is also where Kroc’s successor as Chairman and CEO, Fred Turner, began work flipping burgers for one dollar an hour.

In his autobiography, Grinding it Out, Kroc recalls the beginnings: ” It was in DesPlaines, a seven-minute drive from my home and a short walk from the Northwestern Railroad Station, from where I could commute to the city.” He recalled the opening: “Art Bender, the McDonald brothers’ manager, came to DesPlaines and helped me and Ed (McLuckie) open that store on April 15, 1955. It was a hell of an ordeal, but the experience was to prove invaluable in opening other stores.” Ray said he would “drive down to DesPlaines each morning and help get the place ready to open. The janitor would arrive at the same time I did, and if there was nothing else to be done, I’d help him. I’ve never been too proud to grab a mop and clean up…in the evenings I would commute back to DesPlaines and walk over to the store. I was always eager to see it come into view, my McDonald’s!”

There are plans for historic displays at McDonald’s new corporate headquarters, now being build in the hot, growing business district of West Chicago, however something quite tangible will be lost when that early neon-swaddled McDonald’s — Ray Kroc’s first — no longer exists, and on its original site. Of course, the museum restaurant could be reconstructed, indoors or outdoors, in conjunction with some other museum, such as the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago or the Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, where the Wright Brother’s shop and Thomas Edison labs stand, but that would take some doing, and some caring, from the corporate folks at McDonald’s. We’ll see.

THOMAS TASCHINGER: Hef was last of Big Three that changed pop culture

Published 6:10 am, Sunday, October 1, 2017

The death of Hugh Hefner last week closed a special chapter in modern American history. He was the final survivor of the trio that changed this country forever after World War II.

Prior to that conflict, this nation had millions of people who lived on farms, rarely traveled far from home and lived basic lives.

After the war, we emerged as a modern, industrialized giant that became the greatest superpower since the Roman Empire.

While all that was happening, Hef and two other men helped change our pop culture from what we were to what we are.

One of them was Ray Kroc, the only one on this list whose name is not instantly recognizable to many. He deserves better, since he changed the way we eat.

In 1954, after he lost his job as a milk shake mixer salesman, he joined a small California hamburger chain called McDonald’s. That company had purchased eight of his mixers for one of its restaurants, and he was impressed by its cleanliness and organization.

He thought the same concept could be expanded, changing roadside dining from spotty quality to something you could rely on. It wouldn’t be great food, but it would be good food. And fast.

Kroc’s vision changed eating, and eating out, in America. McDonald’s was followed by other chain restaurants, and almost overnight it was possible to get cheap, decent chow on the run. It blended well with our fast-paced, postwar outlook, especially because it was also inextricably linked with interstate highways.

They could be credited to the second member of this trio, Dwight David Eisenhower. It was said that he was impressed by the autobahn Adolph Hitler had constructed in Germany prior to starting World War II. Ironically, that of course is the same conflict that Ike ended in Europe.

Congress authorized construction of the system in 1956, also known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. The initial goal was to allow troops and trucks to move about quickly in time of war, just as in Germany. Civilian traffic, however, quickly overwhelmed it.

Getting from Point A to Point B became a lot easier. Going from one city to another no longer required the planning of a railway trip. You just got in your car and went. The postwar economy was booming, and almost everyone could afford the latest creation from Detroit.

And thanks to Ray Kroc and his copycats, you could easily grab a meal on the way.

Hugh Hefner grew up in the midst of these vast societal changes. He was also a World War II veteran, writing briefly for an Army newspaper. He is one of the last prominent members of that conflict to fade away.

In 1953, however, he was angry. Esquire magazine, where he worked as a copy editor, had denied him a $5 weekly raise. He quit in frustration and thought he’d try to publish his own magazine.

Whatever you think of Playboy, it changed Americans’ attitude toward sex. It was no longer reserved for married people, and vaguely distasteful. It was pleasurable, and singles could partake. In turn, people who had a new outlook on something so fundamental were open to other questions about what it means to be human.

Sure, eventually someone else would have caused these tectonic shifts in American life. But someone else didn’t. Kroc, Ike and Hef did. Now they are all gone.


Thomas Taschinger,, is the editorial page editor of The Beaumont Enterprise. Follow him on Twitter at @PoliticalTom

It was on this day in 1974 that Richard Nixon turned in his resignation to Henry Kissinger, and Gerald Ford became President. I was somewhat distracted then, as just 5 days before I had gone back to work in public relations in Chicago at Cooper and Golin on the global McDonald's PR account. I was still living on my Chris-Craft, anchored opposite Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park harbor. I would row ashore each morning in my dingy, wearing a three piece suit with my briefcase, then walk across Grant Park to my new office overlooking the Wrigley Building across the Chicago River on Michigan Avenue. Seeing Nixon out was some recompense for the insult of the Vietnam War, but I was too busy getting in the groove of publicizing Ronald McDonald to stop and pay much notice. If Ford hadn't later pardoned Nixon, he might have gone on to become a greater President.

One of the odd yet fun assignments I had as head of corporate communications for McDonald’s was in helping build a relationship with Warren Buffett, who had quietly acquired a $1.5 billion position in McDonald’s stock. We decided to award him a rare McDonald’s Gold Card, entitling him to dine free at McDonald’s. We had Tiffany design and make the special card. Then we distributed Buffet’s photo to all the McDonald’s restaurants in Omaha, his home town, so they would recognize him if he presented the card. When I attended  a teacher’s award dinner he sponsored in Omaha, he was asked if he ever carried cash, and he pulled out his McDonald’s special card, telling the teachers he was most proud of it, but never had the courage to actually use it.

In the news story below, Bill Gates tells of the Chinese McDonald’s coupons we once provided Gates and Buffett, who chartered a train to travel together across China with their families. Buffett had contacted us before the trip, saying he knew he’d miss McDonald’s as they traveled through China, so could we please give him a map of the McDonald’s locations along his route. We did, and also gave the families a supply of Chinese McDonald’s coupons to use.

The Rob Lowe story below refers to the inventor of the Egg McMuffin, franchisee and former ad man Herb Peterson. Peterson created McDonald’s first breakfast item in the late 70s, introducing it to chairman Ray Kroc as “a poor man’s eggs benedict.”


Headline: Some of the richest billionaires in the world still eat at McDonald’s

1 Hour Ago

These billionaires have all the money in the world -- and they still eat at McDonald's

These billionaires have all the money in the world — and they still eat at McDonald’s

Despite their ability to spend, spend, spend, even some of the richest people in the world stick to a few frugal habits. For a few billionaires, that means opting out of Michelin-starred restaurants in favor of an American classic: McDonald’s.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was spotted eating a grab-and-go McDonald’s meal on the Mignanelli Steps near Piazza Spagna in Rome during his honeymoon with his new wife Priscilla Chan in 2012.

Legendary investor Warren Buffett loves the Golden Arches as well. He visits the restaurant every day for breakfast and never spends more than $3.17.

On his five-minute drive to the office, which he’s been doing for the past 54 years, Buffett stops by McDonald’s and orders one of three items.

Warren Buffett's McDonald's breakfast policy always keeps his meals under $3.17

Warren Buffett keeps his breakfast under $3.17

“I tell my wife, as I shave in the morning, I say, ‘Either $2.61, $2.95 or $3.17.’ And she puts that amount in the little cup by me here [in the car],” he explains in HBO’s documentary, “Becoming Warren Buffett.”

Each amount corresponds with a different option at McDonald’s. For $2.61, he can get two sausage patties, $3.17 gets him a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit and $2.95 buys him a sausage, egg and cheese biscuit.

Buffett keeps it frugal even when treating his friends to lunch. In Bill and Melinda Gates’ 2017 annual letter, which they addressed to longtime friend Buffett, Bill tells the story of a particularly economical lunchBuffett took him out for years ago.

McDonald's Quarter Pounder hamburger

Getty Images
McDonald’s Quarter Pounder hamburger

“Remember the laugh we had when we traveled together to Hong Kong and decided to get lunch at McDonald’s? You offered to pay, dug into your pocket, and pulled out … coupons!” he writes.

Both Buffett and Gates are frequent enough patrons to Mickey D’s that they’ve earned the chain’s coveted Gold Cards. In a 2007 interview with CNBC, Buffett shared the contents of his wallet, showing off his card, which lets him eat for free at any McDonald’s in Omaha for the rest of his life.

“So that’s why the Buffett family has Christmas dinner at McDonald’s,” he laughs. “It explains a lot of things.”

Warren Buffett's most eccentric traits

Warren Buffett’s most eccentric traits

The cards are rare. While Buffett’s is only good in Omaha, he explains that Gates’ card gets him free meals anywhere in the world. “Mine is only good in Omaha, but I never leave Omaha so mine is just as good as his,” he says.

Billionaires aren’t the only ones who can boast of Gold Card privileges — although if helps to know someone. In 2015, actor Rob Lowe revealed his own card during a segment on Jimmy Kimmel Live. “My buddy’s dad invented the Egg McMuffin,” he says. “Which, to me, is like the greatest human achievement.”

Like Buffett’s card, Lowe’s was limited. He could only use it at McDonald’s franchises in Santa Barbara or Goleta, Calif., and it expired after a year, in 2016.

Lots of happy faces have turned their smiles upside down thanks to the cynical idiots who have portrayed clowns as evil or frightful characters, in film and out on the streets. Traditional clowns display outsized happy faces and act out the glee of innocent children. They came down to modern generations in circuses and on early children’s television shows as colorful, happy-go-lucky characters, who could juggle and do magic, jump around and entertain in a jolly manner, make characters out of balloons, and even teach kids simple lessons of life.

How very sad that the contortions of humorless cynics are busy taking away that delight from a new generation of kids, and even the adults who recall happier times, but fear those who now sometimes hide behind masks of terror.

Some of the brightest people I have known and worked with created the happy personality, engaging appearance and educational content practiced by one of the world’s best-known and loved clowns, Ronald McDonald.  They brought life to his jolly demeanor, and helped him entertain millions of kids at birthday parties, special events, on TV,in schools and hospitals and even, sometimes at McDonald’s itself.

Now, thanks to the rabble who have turned some clownish smiles into toothy glares, and even threatened people on the streets, even McDonald’s has been forced to keep Ronald at home more often. Spoilsports, nasty adolescents, small criminals and grossly-mistaken people have tried to take the clowns away from a generation that needs small jolts of simple joy and happiness more than ever.

I was lucky enough, some forty years ago, to have been part of a group that put special places of comfort and relief for parents of seriously ill children on the map of America and around the world. They are called Ronald McDonald Houses. How did they get that name? Not because McDonald’s, as a major financial supporter, had recommended the name. Because one of the volunteers thought that the happy environment conjured up by association with Ronald would give these houses an upbeat and hopeful image. The image was a happy one, and kids being treated for serious illnesses could get a smile when they heard their parents or siblings were staying at Ronald McDonald’s house, and even visit them there.

Two generations ago, my family owned part of a circus, and my Dad and Aunt had circus horses to ride, and clown culture was part of family life. My own professional life was filled  with creating events and materials full of upbeat clown content: Ronald McDonald Shows, including school safety and environmental lessons delivered by Ronald, working with the talented comedians and others who trained and motivated those who played Ronald McDonald, naming a major national and international children’s charity after that very clown — Ronald McDonald House Charities.

Today, the explorers of artificial intelligence are creating human-like exteriors for robots, so that people will find it easier to interact with them. A clown face is but an exaggeration of a smiling human, designed to elicit a big smile in return. Anything else is not a clown, but someone’s dark dream. I say, “Bring in the clowns, the real clowns, and let’s smile again!”

Scan 6Pictured is McDonald’s restaurant pioneer Dick McDonald, third from left, with (L toR) Chuck Ebeling, Dot McDonald,  and Dick Starmann.

Many are looking forward to the new motion picture, “The Founder,” starring Michael Keaton, due in theaters in December, 2016. It purports to be the story of how entrepreneur Ray Kroc discovered the small yet successful and innovative fast food restaurant developed by Dick and Mac McDonald in San Bernardino, California, which Ray later acquired all the rights to, including the name, and built into the world’s largest restaurant business. While the story of the period covered in the film is not altogether accurate, based upon pre-release reports, it stops far short of the final chapter  of the story of the McDonald brothers. In the essay below, the complex relationship between the surviving brother, Dick McDonald, and the Corporation built by Ray Kroc is recounted by me, the retired McDonald’s executive who was at the center of all that. The authenticity of this report was verified by Fred Turner, the former McDonald’s senior chairman who succeeded Ray Kroc, when he called me with appreciation for getting it right in this unpublished story. He forwarded this essay to the manager of the McDonald’s Golden Archives with the hand-written note: “Save this gem.” It was a pleasure and an honor to have known Ray Kroc,  Dick McDonald and Fred Turner, and it was one of the most satisfying, if sometimes testing, challenges of my career in building public relationships to have become a friend to Mr. McDonald himself.




By Charles Ebeling




Presented to the Chicago Literary Club

At the Cliff Dwellers, Chicago, Illinois

October 26, 2009



Copyright 2009 by Charles Ebeling





The nineteen eighties and nineties were glory years for many American-based businesses. It was the golden age of globalization, Sarbanes-Oxley was not yet on the horizon, the tech bust was in the future, derivatives was not a dirty word, and the vast financial bailouts of late were in the far distance. Yet, with all that positive momentum underway, there were still some unfinished issues to reconcile from the rebirth of American consumerism in the aftermath of World War II. In the mid-eighties, I found myself smack in the middle of one such reconciliation.

Once, after visiting Thomas Jefferson’s cleverly-designed house at Monticello, with so many advanced innovations for its time in early American history, I was reminded of the now famous reference to his genius, by President John Kennedy, in remarks to North American Nobel Prize winners, when he said: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. “

I wish I’d thought of that quote, when I was writing out notes for my introduction of a special guest at a breakfast meeting the next day on August 22, 1989, on a stage at the Hyatt Regency Chicago Hotel, before a cosmopolitan audience of some 250 breakfast companions. That audience did not know what to expect, because almost none had ever met their special breakfast companion, though many knew bits of his legend, and they saw his surname everywhere they went. He had lived a quiet, private, retired life, totally out of the limelight, for some 30 years, since before most in the audience began their careers and before some were even born. With few fairly recent and notable exceptions, he had been largely invisible over these decades, which he hadn’t really minded at all, because he had long ago achieved his dream of becoming a millionaire and retiring by the time he was 50. After all, back in 1961, when he and his brother had sold their business for a cool million dollars each, after taxes, a million was like eight million today.

The morning’s audience members were to be public relations executives and communications managers from across the U.S. and around the globe. They were sophisticated people, accustomed to listening intently, crafting subtle and compelling business messages and communications campaigns, and then mass communicating this information to carefully targeted, culturally diverse groups of people.

Some of the older professionals in the morning group had met another much more recognizable person, whom they always knew to be the founder of the global company that brought them together. While the founder had been deceased for several years now, they knew his success story well. He had brought to fruition the potential of a new post World War II industry, one that would have an important role in facilitating the expanded mobility and everyday expectations of a modern, fast moving world. They knew about the enormous entrepreneurship and drive that the founder and his ardent disciples had demonstrated. He had made its economic engine into one of a handful of great global brands, and one of the most well-known and profitable giants among those bell weathers of the American economy, the Dow Jones 30 Industrials.

But this morning’s breakfast guest was more of a shadowy figure to them. If the great entrepreneur had been, say Thomas Edison, then this morning’s special breakfast guest might have been his Nikola Tesla. Tesla invented alternating current. Thomas Edison took that invention, which came from his junior associate Tesla’s creative mind, and built it into the dominant form of electric energy on which America runs to this day. Edison’s achievements ring loud through the annals of popular history. Those who dig deeper into the story also come to know Tesla’s.

This large breakfast gathering was to be an important part of an extended coming out party, unlike any Tesla ever received. While Tesla’s name faded into technical history, this man’s name, but not the man himself, had become known to almost everyone on earth, because he gave it, however inadvertently, to the best known and most pervasive food service organization the world has yet seen.

This morning’s event would be part of a process in which the name and the man would be reunited, over more than a decade of events that would bring a glow, and a bit of fire, to his remaining years. This was to be “Breakfast with Mr. McDonald. “


Dick McDonald, who lived on until 1998, was first and foremost a kindly man, a gentleman. He was tall and solidly built, with thin gray hair combed back. He was always well dressed, seemingly always wearing a crisp suit or sport coat and tie, with a neat checked pocket square, and a McDonald’s logo pin on his tie or lapel. In retirement, he was a quiet, friendly New Englander, direct and unpretentious, enjoying a slow predictable pace into his twilight years. He was married in 1965 after his retirement and returned to his hometown, with the love of his life, his old high school sweetheart, Dorothy, whom he called Dot.

Dick and Dot lived in a neat, modest tri-level house that must have been new when he moved to Bedford, New Hampshire, a suburb of Manchester, near where they both grew up. He loved to drive and always had one or more new Cadillacs, a luxury he’d acquired when his San Bernardino restaurant became successful. He had moved back to Bedford from California after he retired in 1961. He was to spend much of his time managing his portfolio of stocks and real estate, and actively corresponding with old friends, and with those few who had discovered his pioneering innovations in restaurant service. He was quoted then as saying, “We keep a low profile. We like it that way. We value our privacy.”

They traveled a lot, driving to Arizona and the west coast, to Florida and Canada many times. He and Dot had both been married before. Dick had no children, but Dot had a son, who had two sons of his own whom Dick thought of as his grandchildren. The grandsons would come to stir old pride and determination in their grandfather’s aging bones, and bring back both tensions and gratifications that enlivened the elder’s hours.

Yes, Dick McDonald had experienced a life full of energy and experiment, failures and successes, before that retired life, at the other end of the country, in another time, which we will revisit. But now, in the autumn of his life, he was again beginning to have some fun and was reaping a second round of well-deserved recognition for the spark of entrepreneurship that he and his brother had lit, in the 1940s and 50s, and which had been fanned into an enormous flame of global consumerism by Ray Kroc, founder of the modern McDonald’s Corporation.

This then is the largely untold, eyewitness story of the reemergence, recriminations, reconciliations and the ultimate reverie of Dick McDonald. He was a man, who with his brother Mac played a pivotal pioneering role in the continuing evolution of food service for the mobile lifestyles of our modern civilization. I was given the chance to help bring his story back to life.

I first met Dick in 1985, the year after Ray Kroc had died, and I would be his most frequent contact, and become his friend, at the business he’d given his name to, until his own death some 13 years later. There was a third of a century between our ages. I’d lost my own grandfather, himself a proud entrepreneurial retailer, a few years before. In some ways for me, as our relationship grew, Dick McDonald began to take my grandfather’s place.

The night before our high profile breakfast, my wife Vicki and I took Dick and Dot out for dinner at the elegant Club International at Chicago’s Drake Hotel. Ron and Pat Miesler joined us. Ron was a veteran McDonald’s vice president who had previously taken a film crew out to Bedford to record Dick’s reminiscences for posterity, as he had once done with Ray Kroc in his later years. That film is preserved in McDonald’s Golden Archives in Elk Grove, Illinois.

I’d told the maître de at the club who our special guest was to be, and after dinner the excited chef brought out a golden frosted cake with McDonald’s arches emblazoned on top. Dick was touched and clapped his hands in delight. He never expected to be treated so specially. It was only when one of his grandchildren or one of his correspondents prodded him about his anonymity that his New England pride would seep through. Dick, like many of his counterparts in the restaurant industry, enjoyed fine dining, and almost always ordered brandy Alexander’s for himself and Dot before dinner. We were to enjoy many excellent restaurants together, from coast to coast, as we traveled to events honoring him in the years ahead.

The breakfast the next day went swimmingly. On stage, Dick and I enjoyed our Egg McMuffins and coffee, as did those in the audience. I introduced him as one of the best conceivable friends and supporters that McDonald’s people could possibly have, as the audience settled down to some breakfast shop talk with the original Mr. McDonald. A brief video followed that included a new McDonald’s Founder’s Day TV commercial we’d produced specially to position the McDonald’s brother’s pioneering role in the so-called fast food industry and their creation and early success opening the first McDonald’s restaurant, along with the role of Ray Kroc in subsequently creating and building the worldwide restaurant company. Dick then earnestly answered my questions and those of audience members, giving everyone a new first-hand perspective on their roots. I later wrote him, saying “I’m glad that during your visit you were able to meet so many of the people here in “McDonaldland” who care about you – our people are uplifted by your positive personality and your optimistic point of view.”

Things hadn’t always been so rosy between Dick McDonald and the company, and the future road would also contain some big bumps. The trouble started almost from the beginning.

Dick and Mac McDonald had come out to California in the 1920s, seeking their fortunes. Their father had come over to New Hampshire from Cork County, Ireland, in the late 19th century. He worked for 40 years in a shoe factory, and was fired, as the Depression was rolling in. The sons resolved to move west, and never work for anyone again. They did work on a movie lot, before opening their own stand to sell orange juice and hot dogs to the crew. For a while they owned a movie theatre, and then in 1940 they opened a traditional carhop, barbecue drive-in in San Bernardino, an old railroad town beginning to grow. The restaurant was a hit, and was written up in trade magazines of its day. But after the war, business began to change and the brothers became restive.

They noted that customers were increasingly complaining about price and the relatively slow carhop service. As families began to grow and the post-war workforce had less time for lunch, the brothers began to devise a plan. Ultimately, they would trim their menu to what customers most frequently ordered – hamburgers, fries, drinks and shakes, so they could prepare and serve it fresh and fast. They would get rid of the barbecue pit, and the complexity of cooking a broad menu. They began to design a new more efficient kitchen layout, drawing the new floor plans in chalk on their tennis court. They would use disposable paper wraps and cups, so there would be no dishwashing. To serve customers more quickly, they’d eliminate the chatty carhops in their white boots and short skirts, and convert their service windows to customer walk-ups.

In 1948, they were pioneering the future of roadside food service. But, customers were slow to accept the new system. As Dick was to say later in Entrepreneur Magazine, “Our customers told us we were losing our minds, and said they would never patronize McDonald’s if they had to wait on themselves – especially if they were only going to be served hamburgers.” But the brothers were anticipating the market, and soon business exploded. He recounted, “The customers changed from teenagers to working class families, and women and their children became the backbone of our business.”

A restaurant in Long Beach copied their layout, so the brothers got the idea to franchise. They ran a national ad in American Restaurant Magazine in 1952, describing an opportunity to get in on “the most revolutionary development in the restaurant industry during the past 50 years.” A story in the same magazine described their operation, “turning out one million hamburgers and 160 tons of French fries a year from a 192-square-foot drive-in with just 18 employees.” They took on an agent, who signed on a dozen franchisees, of which eight built restaurants. Then the agent became ill and could not continue.

Enter Ray Kroc, who was selling milkshake Multi-mixers. The brothers bought eight for their one location. Kroc had to see for himself why this restaurant needed to mix so many milkshakes at one time. He ogled the busy restaurant and offered to grow the system, thinking mostly of how many Multi-mixers he might sell. The rest is the history of how he built a restaurant empire, not just an outlet for selling Multi-mixers. But that is another story.

Ray Kroc quickly realized that McDonald’s had to adapt to grow, and the brothers were slow to accept change and evolution in what they considered their near perfect system. The friction began, and by 1961, Kroc had completed a full buyout of the McDonald brothers. Kroc went on to build the world’s largest food service organization. Dick proudly displayed in his Bedford office a photocopy of a check for $2.7 million. If the McDonald’s had, however unlikely, been able to keep hold the ½% of sales by McDonald’s restaurants they had received prior to the buyout, their heirs might today have been bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars, a year.

Anyhow, the brothers happily and promptly retired, and soon after, Dick moved back to New Hampshire. They contemplated other new business ventures, including a Mexican restaurant concept and an economy motel chain they would have named “The Scotch Inn,” but Dick dropped the ideas when brother Mac died in 1971. In the late 90s, Dick McDonald sent me sketches he had made of two such concepts that never went forward. These and other personal correspondence, photos and materials I’ve accumulated relating to Dick McDonald will one day go to the McDonald’s Golden Archives, the company’s historical branch, which I named and which reported to me until my retirement.

The correspondence with Dick McDonald I’ve reviewed picks up in the 1980s. In the intervening years, Ray Kroc had little to do with the McDonald brothers, as they had parted on bad terms. In 1983, Dick wrote to Fred Turner, who had been Ray Kroc’s right hand man, and by then was heading up the company, enclosing a copy of his 1952 ad. In his note to Fred he said, “This ad was probably the opening shot that started the entire fast food business. We received letters and telegrams from all over the country asking for more information.”

Then in early 1984, Ray Kroc died. His passing was extensively covered in the press. A memorial ad, in fact drafted by me several years earlier when Kroc became quite ill, recognized Kroc as the founder of McDonald’s Corporation, which he was. However when Dick McDonald saw the memorial ad run in his hometown newspaper by the local McDonald’s franchisees, he was miffed, as the ad had not acknowledged the early pioneering of the McDonald brothers. He did not understand that it was a memorial ad to the memory of Ray Kroc, and wrote to Fred Turner, saying “I look back at the tremendous amount of time and effort Mac and I put into McDonald’s trying to get it off the ground, and then I read in my home town paper Ray Kroc started the whole thing, that is more than I can take. In view of the situation, I do not want any further relations with your company.” He had not noted that an article, which ran next to the ad in the same paper, put McDonald’s history into a more complete context.

A few weeks later, the Manchester Union Leader newspaper, which had interviewed Dick announced, “Reports that the founder of the McDonald’s fast food chain has died were greatly exaggerated, as Mark Twain might have said.” The article went on, “yes, multimillionaire McDonald’s owner Ray Kroc died last weekend. Ray Kroc was not – as some reports called him – the founder.” Later in the article, Dick conceded that reports that described Kroc as the founder were the product of a McDonald’s publicity agent. “Ray Kroc never claimed to be the founder,” he asserted. Years later, Al Golin, Chairman of Golin/Harris, McDonald’s long-time PR firm, told me that the company was careful with the distinction. Al pointed out that Ray Kroc’s reputation as the Henry Ford of the fast food industry often led others to characterize him as the founder of McDonald’s, rather than the founder of the Corporation that bore McDonald’s name.

Once asked why he hadn’t changed the name of the restaurants to Kroc’s, Ray Kroc enjoined, “Who’d want to go to a restaurant called Kroc’s? McDonald’s is an All-American name.” Dick and Mac were themselves pleasantly surprised when the franchisee of the second McDonald’s, located in Phoenix, decided to retain their name on his road sign, which wasn’t required by his contract.

Dick never quite got used to people being confused about his identity. After all, it was Kroc who made McDonald a household name. Dick liked to tell the story of his grandson asking a neighbor’s kids if they’d like to meet the man who started McDonald’s. When he met the children, Dick said, “They had the most disappointed look in their eyes I had ever seen. They thought they were going to meet the clown, Ronald McDonald.”

In March of that year, Fred Turner wrote an open letter, widely distributed through the McDonald’s system, explaining in detail just what the early contributions of the McDonald’s brothers had been to the business. In his letter, he wrote, “Dick and Mac founded the original McDonald’s system. Ray Kroc founded the Corporation which developed, serviced and operated the McDonald’s system.”

But clearly, Dick McDonald’s well-justified New England pride occasionally slipped into bouts of hubris. In September, 1984, Dick was again on the warpath, when a news item appeared on CNN Business indicating that McDonald’s was planning to tear down an obsolete restaurant in Des Plaines, Illinois that was described in the story as the first McDonald’s. In fact, it had been the first McDonald’s that Ray Kroc opened in 1955, after linking up with the McDonald brothers. Fast food fans had wanted to give it museum status as the first, which had attracted the press. An angry McDonald wrote Fred Turner, exclaiming, “This will be the last letter you will ever receive from me.” Turner quickly clarified the situation in the Chicago Tribune’s INC. column, saying, “It wasn’t No. 1 anyhow. The original McDonald’s was in California. The one in Des Plaines, which became the first this side of the Rockies, has gone through too much change to be saved for its historic significance.”

Ken Props, an early franchising executive with the corporation, reached out to McDonald, telling him the company had reversed its decision, and would restore the Des Plaines restaurant, located not far from company headquarters, to its original 1955 red and white tile, neon-lit glory. And with signage it would clearly indicate it was not the very first McDonald’s.

Later in 1984, Dick Starmann, who headed communications for McDonald’s, had developed an idea that would begin the healing with Dick McDonald. He and Ken Props visited Dick to discuss it with him. The company was coming up on the milestone of serving its 50 billionth hamburger, as determined by an algorithm used to update the “Billions Served” road signs outside most McDonald’s restaurants. The idea was that McDonald’s USA President Ed Rensi would personally grill the 50 billionth hamburger, a Quarter Pounder, using a symbolic golden spatula. This unique press event would take place in a hotel ballroom in New York City. Ed would then serve the 50 billionth burger to the man who had grilled the first one, Dick McDonald.

Dick, who had always considered himself the marketing wiz of the brothers, while Mac was the restaurant operations guru, loved the idea. Dick thought it was inspired to set up a McDonald’s grill in a hotel ballroom for the press, writing, “This will probably be the first time millions of people have actually seen a McDonald’s hamburger prepared.” The media event was staged as planned, with Dick McDonald as the star, and it received worldwide publicity. Dick later wrote Ed Rensi, to say the burgers sold sign, “was a gimmick my brother and I instituted way back in 1950. Customers seemed to get a kick watching the numbers change. We had a simulated thermometer painted on one of the windows and as the numbers grew our painter would up the count until we hit one million, when he painted an explosion at the top of the sign.” By the way, when McDonald’s signs hit the “100 Billion Sold” record some years later, we stopped counting, at least publically.

The 50 billionth hamburger, minus one bite, was sealed into a silver-plated replica of a McDonald’s hamburger and presented to Dick. When I spotted it on his home desk on a visit to his house several years later, he told me the story of his grandson playing with it, and one day accidentally opening it. The boy showed Dick the shriveled remnant of that record-setting hamburger, and promptly threw it away.

In late December 1984, Dick Starmann wrote McDonald saying, “Well – I’ve finally been able to confirm that everyone on the communications department staff here in Oak Brook knows of McDonald’s early history and your pivotal and significant contributions to that story.” He attached signed and notarized affidavits from every member of his department attesting to the fact that they knew the real story. All was forgiven, for now.

I had been a public relations consultant to McDonald’s through much of the 1970s, and then in early 1985, I joined the company staff, heading corporate communications. One of the first extra assignments given me by Dick Starmann, was to represent the company in building the budding new relationship with Dick McDonald. Soon thereafter I visited McDonald at his home, and we began a regular correspondence by letter and phone. I kept him updated on company news, sending him copies of publications and articles and videos. He loved the milestones of international growth, and was particularly impressed with the opening of the Russian market in Moscow and later, in China. He avidly followed new products, and often visited “his” local McDonald’s in Bedford, owned by franchisee Ron Evans.

As for Dick’s own menu preferences, he did not consider himself much of a hamburger man, though he thought McDonald’s had done a good job using lean beef and preparing its hamburgers with consistency through the years. Personally he had long preferred to eat hot dogs. One day, at the Bedford McDonald’s I noticed him ordering a McChicken sandwich before a media interview, which he unflinchingly admitted was his favorite McDonald’s product to date.

Dick seemed to be set off when beset by people who needled him about his low profile with McDonald’s. He wrote Fred Turner in 1986, complaining that a friend from San Bernardino had called him, saying he had decided to drive to Oak Brook while in Chicago, to see McDonald’s head offices. Dick said, “He told me he saw streets named after officials but nothing pertaining to the McDonald’s Brothers. He said he even saw a street named after the clown, so my rating must be even lower than the clown’s.” Turner sardonically wrote back, “Dick: Got your note and apparently your “friend” missed one of the street signs, as he missed the fact that the Home Office at the Plaza is located on McDonald’s Drive. Please ask him where the hell he thinks Ronald got his last name. Warm regards, Fred.”

Another milestone of excitement and recognition for Dick came about in 1987, crowning several years of effort. The event benefitted both his reputation and the place of the company in the history of a mobile America. The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, Michigan, is a historic icon of the automobile industry and of American industry in the 20th century. It not only features Ford’s history, but the history of the entire automotive industry, and displays hundreds of historic cars of all brands, locomotives, Thomas Edison’s original laboratories and so on. But the structures that house the cars and trains were antiquated themselves. Looking like a bleak indoor car lot, row upon row of largely black autos seemed to go on forever. Determined to refurbish the place, museum staff envisioned a Midwest Smithsonian, with the auto as the star, creatively displayed in context with dioramas of the roadside culture they had spawned. They had contacted me, seeking assistance in obtaining and rebuilding a 50s era McDonald’s inside the museum, along with full scale antique gas stations, diners, motel rooms, road signs and other such mementos of time past.

Unfortunately, we found that by then almost all of the early red and white tile drive-in McDonald’s had been replaced by the then current mansard roof building designs, and that the few remaining red and whites were either too modified to represent the brand or would be too expensive to tear down and move. But our luck was to change. Right in the Detroit market, we learned that a franchisee was about to replace a 50s era giant road sign, illuminated with pink and white neon and with an animated Speedee chef character, which was an early symbol of McDonald’s fast service. If we wanted it, we could have it, said franchisee Dan Shimel, if we could shoulder the expense of moving it, right away. In some hurried communications with the Ford Museum they agreed it would be a perfect giant artifact for inside the entrance to their new display building. I was able to put together the funding, with the help of McDonald’s Detroit regional office, and the sign was moved to the museum for restoration and installation.

The big reopening of the Ford Museum, and its “Automobile in American Life” exhibit hall was scheduled for 1987, and it was to be a national media blow out, with a gala black tie opening fund-raising event attended by the automotive elite. William Clay Ford was to be the event chairman, and McDonald’s CEO was to among the special guests. Then we thought, wait, this historic event, all about roadside history, would be perfect for Dick McDonald, so Fred Turner agreed and Dick was invited to represent the company. We decided to make it memorable for him, which led to a lot of positive publicity.

We worked out the program carefully with the Ford people. The grand opening moment in the vast museum, that mimicked the floor plan of Henry Ford’s first factory, would be the lighting of the giant restored McDonald’s road sign inside the museum’s entrance. As veteran Chicago auto writer Jim Mateja would write in the Tribune, “As you walk in the door, the McDonald’s sign set the tone.” Beneath the sign is a classic 1955 Chevy convertible and alongside it, the recreation of a room in the first Holiday Inn.

At the opening, on the podium beneath the sign would stand Bill Ford, Dick McDonald and Kemmons Wilson, founder of Holiday Inn. The sign would be lighted by the three pulling a large switch that was used by Thomas Edison to illuminate his first light bulb. They did, and as the McDonald’s sign sprang to life again, the thousand-plus black tie crowd roared its approval, as the cameras flashed and the videotape rolled. Dick McDonald was in the headlines, and in seventh heaven. His wife Dot stood next to me, tears rolling down her cheeks. The event had been filled with glamorous receptions and a dinner in Dick’s honor at one of his favorite old haunts, the London Chop House. My associate Susan McBride, who still heads internal communication for McDonald’s, was there to help coordinate all the arrangements and make sure everyone in the McDonald’s system knew about this historic event and Dick’s role in it.

Dick wrote Fred Turner after the event, saying he found Bill Ford “very pleasant” and “he told me he is an avid customer of McDonald’s. It was a memorable evening for Dorothy and me,” and he concluded warmly, saying, “Fred, I would like to quietly slip into Oak Brook to see you and hash over the old days.” He wrote Vicki and me saying, “Chuck, congratulations on the fantastic way you handled the entire affair.” A record 1.3 million visitors would tour the new museum in the next year. Indeed, we were now on a roll.

The next year, following rounds of print and TV media interviews at his home back in Bedford, was our milestone Breakfast with Mr. McDonald at our Worldwide Communications Conference. We thanked him for being “a master storyteller.” He wrote back saying, “We are truly grateful for the manner in which we were treated by everyone at the Conference. In fact, we were overwhelmed.”

McDonald’s opened its 10,000th restaurant in late 1988, just outside of Washington, D.C. Dick was unable to attend, but in Fred Turner’s dedication of that milestone location, he opened his remarks, saying, “Mac and Dick McDonald did the original design, Ray Kroc provided the foundation.” In fact, Dick McDonald had designed the original arches, to give his modest California store some height and to make it visible from the street. His building design evolved into the company’s current logo.

In 1988, my associate Chuck Rubner and I had another idea for Dick. We had decided that the company’s annual report to shareholders would feature a story about the company’s guiding principles as its theme. Those principles include a dedication to quality, service, cleanliness and value. We invited people we thought could well address each tenet to write short essays for the report. Columnist George Will wrote on quality. Stanley Marcus, of department store fame, wrote on customer service, Fred Rogers of PBS fame, wrote on cleanliness, and we invited Dick McDonald to write about value. We offered each writer a $2500 donation in their name to a children’s charity of their choice. Dick selected Ronald McDonald House Charities, a cause he would support many times over the years with personal contributions.

Dick’s page on value appeared in the annual report, along with his photo and a short story about the brother’s pioneering work. He wrote of their early commitment to “highest quality food at low prices, including 15-cent hamburgers, 10-cent fries and 10-cent Cokes. When I go to McDonald’s today,” he said, “and factor in the inflation, McDonald’s still gives that kind of value,” he concluded. Dick and Dot were special guests at the stockholder’s meeting in Oak Brook in 1988. He sat in on the Board meeting, and was introduced to the shareholders, where he spoke briefly. Dick, then 79, wrote of enjoying “all the boys and girls at the meeting,” and liked touring the headquarters campus, which he described as “resort like.”

In 1990, Dick wrote us on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of when he and Mac opened their first McDonald’s, the barbecue, carhop version, in 1940. He recalled trying to get a contractor to put up a building without any collateral. “The first day we opened, I remember my brother saying he hoped the first couple of customers didn’t want to pay with 20 dollar bills, or we would have been out of business, we were so short of cash. Many years later I recall Harry Sonneborn, the first McDonald’s president, making the remark that nothing grows without the first seed and that the McDonald brothers planted that first seed,” Dick concluded. “I never forget that remark by Harry as it made me feel that the brothers did have some role in the success that followed.”

But in 1991, storm clouds were brewing again. The year opened with a nice letter from Dick, in February, indicating, “We are still kicking back here. No big news to tell. All conversation is about the war in the Persian Gulf.” He commented that he had liked the videotape of the Moscow opening the previous year, as he liked to show these to his friends and grandsons. He wondered if the China opening got a “big play.” I replied that the Shenzhen restaurant indeed had, nearly breaking the Moscow opening day record with a volume of 30 thousand customers, and I forwarded him a video of it that I’d just received from Jim Cantalupo, President of the International division. I told Dick I’d just heard he’d be a special guest at an area McDonald’s anniversary celebration. I mentioned that we’d just been skiing with a friend and pioneering Chicago area McDonald’s franchise owner, Ken Norgan. Dick always liked to hear stories about interesting travel.

All hell broke loose in August, when I heard from a Wall Street Journal reporter who called for background information on Dick. She indicated she’d be doing an interview with him for a historical feature profile that would appear in a few weeks. Dick and I had developed a mutual system in which if either of us were contacted by the media regarding his history with McDonald’s, we would talk and coordinate. We were on the same page now, or so I thought, as we had agreed there should be no surprises. I mentioned to Dick that I’d be happy to come out to Manchester, where the interview was scheduled at a McDonald’s restaurant, to help with any questions on the company. The reporter soon called me back to say she did not want me at the interview, and she’d handle everything with Dick. I called Dick after the interview and he said it was all very positive and he’d answered the usual questions about the early days. He said there were no “tough” questions. Despite his feedback, I had a hunch and notified top management of my concern.

On August 15, the time bomb went off, with a full front page center column, 24 paragraph feature story in the Journal under the headline, “McDonald’s Pickle: He Began Fast Food But Gets No Credit.” The subhead called out, “History According to Kroc Irks Dick McDonald, Who Rid the World of Carhops.” The crux of the article was that Dick had just received a McDonald’s house organ the preceding week that touted the company’s annual “Founder’s Day” tribute to Ray Kroc. The reporter said Dick “loathes this annual rite, usually tied to a splashy nationwide television ad campaign.” Dick was quoted saying, “It really burns the hell out of me.” Later in the story, McDonald said, “Up until the time we sold, there was no mention of Kroc being the founder. If we had heard about it, he would have been back selling milk shake machines.” Now, he said, the company history begins in 1955, “and everything before that is wiped out.”

Ouch! We thought we’d cleared the air on that with Dick, over and over again. Even the Journal, which had pushed him on the founder issue, gave the company some grudging credit. They printed, “McDonald’s Corp hasn’t entirely expunged the McDonald’s bothers from company lore. Charles Ebeling, director of communications, calls Mr. McDonald ‘the pioneer – part of our living history’. Mr. Ebeling also cites all the ceremonial occasions to which Mr. McDonald has been invited, such as one marking the sale of the 50 billionth burger. And he provides company histories that mention Mr. Kroc’s fascination with what the McDonald’s brothers were cooking up. In Kroc’s words: ‘I thought I’d go see for myself, So I booked my 52-year-old bones onto a red-eye special and flew west to meet my future.’ “The article went on, “Still, Mr. Ebeling stresses, ‘Ray Kroc was the founder of the corporation, the guy who grew the business.’ Conceding an irony that still irks Mr. McDonald, he adds: ‘Ray Kroc doesn’t have his name on the door. Yet Dick McDonald – whose name is a household word – well, many people don’t realize there is a real McDonald.’ “

“Whose fault is that?” the Journal asks. “Mr. McDonald wonders,” they went on. I briefly wondered about my job security. A letter from a friend two days later said, “Chuck: Congratulations on making the front page of the Journal. After years and years of reading that newspaper, I can finally say I know someone who made the front page.” I wasn’t amused.

There were different strategies put forth to respond to the Journal story, but the more direct ones were rejected by the company. Al Golin, head of McDonald’s PR firm, had drafted a passionate defense of Kroc as a letter to the editor. It concluded, “Dick McDonald made the decision to sell his company at a time when, by his own admission, he didn’t have the desire or ambition to expand any further. I don’t think anyone at McDonald’s would diminish Dick’s original concept – and I hope he can sit back and enjoy the satisfaction of having his name a household word throughout the world. When a baby is left on a doorstep of a home – the true father is the one who raised and educated that baby to maturity. The McDonald’s Restaurant’s father is Ray Kroc.” I had lunch with Al recently, and he said he withdrew the letter before it could be published, out of empathy for Dick McDonald.

The same day, Fred Turner got a long letter from Dick, who wrote, “After the Journal article came out, my phone never stopped ringing with calls from all over the country. I have always tried to be courteous to everyone but I’m 82 years old and this is too much. After I talked with Chuck Ebeling the following day, I took my phone off the hook. Chuck was quite concerned that the media would try to start a controversy between the company and me.”

I had good reason to be concerned, and so did McDonald, because the media onslaught was on. As the letter to Turner continued, Dick worked up his pride, saying, and “My 2 grandsons are starting to have arguments with other students about who was the real founder of McDonald’s. They are just starting high school, and I would be a lousy grandfather if I let that happen. Fred, I will spend whatever amount of money necessary to prove to the public that the McDonald brothers, not Ray Kroc, were the real founders of McDonald’s. P.S. This will be the first time the kids have seen this old, stubborn Irishman in action and I will try to make them proud of me.”

A week later, he wrote again, describing how several McDonald’s franchisees had called him, defending the contributions of Ray Kroc to their success. He complained about how few franchisees had ever called or written to him.

Dick had a special place in his heart for two McDonald’s people who treated him royally. One was regional VP Jeff Schwartz of Phoenix, who had come east to visit him in Bedford. Dick and Dot loved to vacation at the Arizona Biltmore. Jeff picked them up there one day, and took them to the office, where a hundred employees and franchises were gathered to surprise and fete them. Another was Sam Joseph, a long-time executive in McDonald’s Toronto office, who hosted the McDonald’s many times at their offices and at his home, and who introduced them to Canadian McDonald’s President George Cohon, whom also befriended him.

The McDonald’s David and Goliath story was catnip for the news media. Dick’s hometown paper, the Union Leader, ran an empathetic story under a large photo of Dick leaning on the Golden Arches, with the headline, “McDonald’s namesake – Neither a Clown Nor a Kroc.” Dick wrote me in November saying, “received 3 phone calls from CNN for an interview. They wanted me to come to New York. They seemed miffed when I said they’d have to come to New Hampshire, informing me this would be an opportunity to be heard all over the world. At my age of 82, being heard on CNN is not high on my list of priorities.”

Fred Turner called me up to his office one day, saying he wanted to phone Dick McDonald and discuss the article and the letter and the issues. It started out politely enough, but Fred grew frustrated with Dick’s continuing insistence on the founder issue. Too may people were urging him to come out from Ray Kroc’s shadow. It soon turned into a yelling match on the speakerphone, and I watched as the admin staff bailed out of the open-office executive area. The next day, Fred called me back, and said his wife Patty had been at him all night for exploding on the elderly man. Fred said to me, “Just sit here and listen while I call him back to apologize.” I did, and he did.

A new letter soon arrived in Fred’s inbox. Dick said, “First of all I deeply regret our discussion ended up in a bad shouting match. After years of knowing me, I am sure you are aware that I do have a short fuse. However, Fred, you are not a milk toast either. Dot has been working on me for years but I am afraid I am not 100% yet. There is one thing I want you to know. Whatever arguments we may have, I have always had a tremendous amount of respect for you and will continue to have.”

The media coverage of the falling-out went on for weeks, and gave Dick McDonald the public platform to tell his version of the McDonald’s story he’d been wanting for years. When the company celebrated its Founder’s Day in 1991, there was a new message, and a new TV commercial. A Reuters News report summed it up thusly — “In television ads that hit the airwaves Thursday, McDonald’s Corp. paid tribute to the chain’s original founders, one of whom complained about being ignored in the past. The ads marking the firm’s annual “founder’s day” promotions feature employees holding candles while a voice intones ‘It began as a spark from Dick and Mac McDonald and with the guiding light of Ray Kroc it became a flame.’ ” Chicago’s Leo Burnett ad agency created that wound-healing commercial.

A TV program out of Boston, one of dozens that covered the story, interviewed Dick. The program’s host began with this succinct background, “Every would-be entrepreneur in America knows the story of Ray Kroc, probably by heart. His was one of the greatest American success stories, the man who found the pot of gold at the end of the golden arches. But, contrary to what everyone thinks, it was not Ray Kroc who cooked up McDonald’s. In the beginning, it was the idea of two brothers named Dick and Mac, the true inventors of fast food.”

Charles Osgood, in his Osgood File network radio report, had this to say, “His name is on 12, 141 fast food places — the ones with the golden arches. It was Richard McDonald who first sketched those arches for the place he and his brother ran in San Bernardino, California. They were on to something, to say the least. Kroc and the McDonald brothers had a falling out. They acknowledged that Kroc built the empire but resented that he called himself the founder of McDonald’s. With both Kroc and Mac McDonald dead, now the company in its ads credits both the brothers and Kroc. They plan to erect a plaque at the sight of the first McDonald’s in San Bernardino. That makes Richard feel better about everything.”

A plaque indeed! For quite a while I had been in touch with a community organization called the San Bernardino Light Opera Company. They put on semi-professional plays and musicals at the downtown theatre, and owned a building around the corner they used as a wardrobe center on the sight of Dick and Mac McDonald’s original drive-in restaurant. The restaurant was long gone, but the base of the old road sign was there. Fred Turner had been interested in trying to find the red and white tiles from the original store, to have for some possible future historic reconstruction, and had regional manager Bill Marble and his staff doing detective work to track them down.

Along the way, a new idea emerged. We would help the Light Opera Company restore the road sign, identifying it as the location of the Light Opera, but also with a disk at the top that said, “Historic Site of the Original McDonald’s.” We would place and dedicate a large brass plaque at the base of the sign, and it would say, under the original McDonald’s Speedee logo, “Dick and Mac McDonald opened the world’s first McDonald’s Self-Service, Drive-In Restaurant on this site in San Bernardino, California, December, 1948. They previously operated a successful Drive-In barbecue Restaurant with Carhop Service on this site from 1940 to 1948.”

Our special guests for the dedication on January 17, 1992, would be none other than Dick and Dot McDonald, their son Gale French and the two grandsons. We worked with city officials and the Light Opera Company to make it a gala. Local print ads invited the public. Dick McDonald would receive the keys to the city from the mayor at the unveiling, and there would be speeches from the McDonald’s Regional VP, Bill Marble, and other officials. Dick, Dot and the grand children would cut the ribbon with Ronald McDonald as the TV cameras rolled. There was a special performance of the Light Opera in Dick’s honor the night before, and a special reception for his old carhops and former employees and suppliers after the dedication. One letter came in from a 75-year old Carnation Ice Cream employee who had been on loan to the McDonald brothers for their original opening night. He wrote, “My boss was also there and furnished a couple of quarts of bourbon (hidden in the store room) which we nipped on during the evening. Frankly, as I remember, the customer traffic was not booming, but it was fun.”

More than 400 people turned out for the rededication event. At the opening, Dick said, “This is where Mac and I started it all, and it’s like coming home for me.” Bill Marble added, “Dick and Mac and Ray were all founders, and McDonald’s success today is rooted in the work of all three.”

The San Bernardino Sun newspaper led with the headline, “McDonald Got a Break Today, “and reported, “The oldest dispute haunting the world’s largest hamburger chain was settled here Friday when the McDonald’s Corporation recognized 1398 N. E Street as its birthplace. Richard McDonald, the surviving founder of the fast-food chain, and officials of the Oak Brook, Illinois based company declared the controversy over with the unveiling of a plaque set in concrete. ‘I think it’s fantastic’, Mr. McDonald said, ’I’m so appreciative of the company for doing this.’ ” A note I received from Dick afterwards said, “All of us had a wonderful time. For the kids, it was the trip of a lifetime.”

That was the end of our trials and tribulations over who had started McDonald’s. But it was not the end of the fun with and for Dick McDonald. He played an important role in a Smithsonian World PBS special called “A Moveable Feast,” produced by Linda Ellerbee and written and narrated by Lloyd Dobyns. It featured a review of the nation’s dining traditions, ranging from Fred Harvey and his eateries along the Santa Fe Railroad, to New York’s 21 Club and California’s Chez Panise, along with the Father of Fast Food. I accompanied Dick to the premiere at the Smithsonian Castle in Washington DC.   We visited Dick’s senator and toured Congress, dining on Navy bean soup at the Senate dining room, where senators and their aides besieged Dick for autographs.

I visited Dick in Bedford in 1994. A major reconstruction had just been completed at the Manchester Airport, and Dick insisted on meeting us on arrival, although he was in a frail condition. He had a neighbor drive and as I walked into the main lobby, and glanced over to the new, state-of-the-art McDonald’s restaurant there, I noticed a tall, gray figure in a trench-coat, slightly stooped, wandering through, and glancing up at the multi-colored neon signage. He looked very out of place, until he turned in my direction, and said, “Hello Chuck.” Indeed, it was Dick McDonald.

In 1995, Dick wrote to McDonald’s Chairman/CEO and fellow Irishman Mike Quinlan, commenting, “It’s amazing how the years pass. I am now 86 years old but fortunately in good health. It is hard to kill the Irish. I vividly recall the days of the old LaSalle-Wacker headquarters building. One day Mac and I were having a meeting there with Ray and Harry. I remember Ray predicting that some day there would be more than 500 McDonald’s units. Give my best to the gang.” Today, in 2009, there are more than 32,000 McDonald’s around the globe.

Richard Threlkeld of CBS News drove up to New Hampshire to do a segment with Dick. Threlkeld wrote him afterwards to say, “I’m still dining out on the story you told about after you let the carhops go and shifted to self-service, you had the employees park in the customer’s slots to make the place look busy.”

The next year, Dick McDonald wrote to congratulate the company on the launch of the ill-fated Arch Deluxe sandwich in a gala at the Radio City Music Hall. “The introduction was really spectacular. Please tell Mike and Ed they did a fine job…and also looked very dapper.”

David Halberstam, interviewed Dick at his home for his book, “The Fifties.” Dick enjoyed being a critic, chiding Halberstam for characterizing him and his brother as failures prior to going to California. He pointed out that he was “only 17 when I went to California, so I must have been 15 or 16 during the ‘failed’ ventures on page 155 in your book.” In his letter to me about the book, Dick said, “Halberstam is probably correct when he states the McDonald Brothers floundered a lot. I am still floundering but manage to flounder to the bank once in a while.” Dick and Fred Turner appeared in the TV series based on the book, in a segment called “The Road to the Sixties.”

Asked what most pleased him about what McDonald’s had become, Dick replied, “What I’m most proud of is that McDonald’s must employ millions of youngsters, and I’ll bet it’s kept a lot of them out of trouble.”

Dick wrote me in 1996 to tell of the time the Carnation Company brought President Nixon’s brother by to see their new self-service concept in San Bernardino, as he was considering a franchise. He seemed tickled to recount that Nixon was not impressed, saying that people wanted car service and thought the idea had no merit.

In 1997, Dick wrote a note to McDonald’s Customer Relations supervisor, Beth Peterson, thanking her for sending along some Beanie Babies for his niece, which he had asked me about. He wrote, “It was great of Chuck to come to my rescue, but that is the way he is. P.S. I’m sure you know that Dick Starmann and Chuck have been two of my closest friends for many years.” I was touched by his comments when Beth gave me the note.

In June of 1998, Dick mailed me drawings he’d had commissioned of two fanciful restaurant concepts he’d long had in mind. He commented that back in San Bernardino he and Mac had many requests for tacos and other Mexican fare, but didn’t do so because of their limited menu concept. His Mexican concept was the Gold Sombrero restaurant, and his other idea was The Giant Orange, designed to serve pitchers of fresh orange juice to tourists leaving the Mohave Desert. Dick said Dot’s reaction to his ideas was that he drink a glass of warm milk and take a nap.

Just a month later, Dick passed away quietly. I had drafted his obituary a few years earlier, and it now appeared prominently around the world. He would have liked that.

Dick liked to send me jokes and cartoons about McDonald’s. One I still have shows two angels looking up at giant Golden Arches in the clouds, saying, “I always thought the heavenly gates would be pearly, not golden.”

I don’t know the whole story about his wishes. He had no funeral. However, in researching this story, I ran across a website I’d never known, called And there he is, alongside Dot, in a mausoleum in Calvary Cemetery in Manchester, and above their names and dates, in large dignified script against a mahogany background, are the words, “Founder of McDonald’s,” next to a bright rendering of the Golden Arches.

On a hunch, I searched the same website for Ray Kroc, and found a photo of his grave marker in California, where the inscription simply reads, “Ray A. Kroc, 1902-1984.”

In the year 2000, Time and CBS cooperated in producing a book on, “the 100 men and women who shaped the last one hundred years.” Chef Jacques Pepin interviewed me for the profile of Ray Kroc. He concluded his piece, writing, “Like many of America’s great entrepreneurs, Kroc was not a creator…for he had the cunning ability to grasp a concept with all its complexities and implement it in the best possible way. And that’s as American as a cheeseburger.”

As Kroc liked to say, “None of us is as good as all of us.”

Rest in piece, Mr. Kroc — and Mr. McDonald.



Chuck Ebeling is a public relations man who invested more than half of his career, some 22 years, managing the reputation of McDonald’s Corporation. He held virtually every job in directing internal and external communications for McDonald’s, first with their long-time public relations agency, Golin/Harris Communications, and then as director of corporate communications with the corporation. He retired on the cusp of the Millennium as a vice president and chief spokesperson for McDonald’s.


scan0034 (Photo taken near the end of my McCareer at my old office within McDonald’s Oak Brook, IL global home office.) Fifteen years ago tomorrow, I retired, at the very cusp of the Millennium, vowing I’d worked enough in one century, and wouldn’t make that mistake in another.  In early 1985, I’d joined McDonald’s as head of corporate communications, a position I would hold for 15 years. At my retirement party, in a take-off on Ernest Hemingway, I’d noted that I’d spent much of the 1970’s with McDonald’s national public relations agency, Golin/Harris, which I referred to as my golden salad days, then from the mid-80s through the 90s at McDonald’s corporate office, as the hearty main course of my career, and then in the new 21st century began the savory dessert course of so-called retirement. And like most desserts, this final course, over the last 15 years, has been sweet and savory. Thanks to all who have been along on all, or even part, of my continuing journey. Cheers for the New Year!

Afloat in the PR whirl of 1970s Chicago
By Charles Ebeling
Copyright 2012 Charles Ebeling

I suppose there are other examples of a shipwreck launching a career, but I can’t think of one.
Even less probable was that the snapping of strained mooring lines, in the midst of an unseasonably wild nor’easter, was likely to have clinched a career in the esoteric profession of public relations. But on reflection, it sure did.
When my boat went to the bottom after bashing against the Grant Park seawall in late September, 1974, any lingering thoughts I still had, of taking her down the Mississippi to the Bahamas and becoming an islands charter captain, were dashed as well. It’s as if I’d christened my revitalized career in Chicago public relations with a bottle of champagne across its bow. In fact, there were to be many bottles of champagne.
My craft, a stylish 27-foot Chris-Craft cabin cruiser with a deep navy blue hull and a white superstructure, was aptly re-named CHASE, partly because it was an acronym for my first and middle names – Charles and Edwin – but also because the word captured the presumed essence of my new bachelor’s life.
The boat’s previous name had been PatChas, and as my divorce loomed, the “Pat” part on the stern was painted away, and an “E” added. I’d taken a six-month personal sabbatical beginning early that year, when I experienced an almost simultaneous failure of both my job at a Loop PR agency and my marriage.
I had sold the furniture, sub-let the apartment, put my business clothes in storage, and planned to move aboard the boat by the early spring of 1974. My full-time work became readying the CHASE for launching at the boatyard in Kenosha, along the Lake Michigan shore just north of Chicago. Fresh paint went onto the hull and bottom as well as the topsides, canvas was repaired, the engine tuned and the electronics checked. I did the painting and clean up myself, living in a local motel across the harbor.
My goal was to take the boat to Chicago for the early part of summer, then cruise her down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, across the Gulf and into the Bahamas, where I would charter her and act as captain.
It was not to be.
I first sailed the CHASE south to Diversey Harbor in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, not far from my old apartment, where I could dock in the pre-season before my mooring was put in place in Grant Park Harbor, in front of Chicago’s legendary Buckingham Fountain. Mine was the first boat into the harbor that season, and some mornings there was frost on the deck. But, it was a comfortable feeling to be docked right in my old neighborhood near the shore, where I could visit familiar restaurants and tavern haunts and drop in on my new girlfriend.
In May, I weighed anchor and cruised the few more miles to Grant Park, where I tied my deck lines to the floating mooring, the nearest one to the park’s inner cement sea wall, in line with the harbor’s center entrance. There I set up housekeeping, bobbing in the light chop of the gigantic harbor, which was beginning to fill with moored sailboats of all sizes and a smattering of cruisers like mine, as well as larger yachts. I could row ashore aboard my 8-foot dinghy.
I joined the Columbia Yacht Club, a refurbished 100-foot working boat permanently docked next to the swankier Chicago Yacht Club, along the harbor shoreline, with the high rises of Michigan Avenue as a backdrop across two blocks of green park. Columbia gave me a friendly, convenient place to shower, receive phone messages and dock the CHASE to meet friends.
It was a little embarrassing to be drawing unemployment checks while living aboard my boat and hanging out at a yacht club, even a relatively tacky one like Columbia, but I reasoned that it would only be for a month or two, until I shoved off for my chartering career.
Don’t be overly impressed by my lifestyle then. A few years before, my grandfather had made me a gift of a paid up life insurance policy. Following my dad’s adage to put away half of any windfall, I’d done just that, and bought the used boat with the balance – for a little more than the price of a new car.
But as the summer dawned, with its soft warm breezes, life did seem good. My little boat had almost everything I needed, at least in a basic form. It had a double V-shaped bunk under the bow, with lockers and a dinette that would seat four aft on one side, and a head with sink and toilet and a small galley with sink, alcohol stove and non-electric ice box, on the other side. The nautical signal lamp on the dinette table had been on my father’s boats before, and sits today on the entrance table of my home – more than 45 years later. Up a few steps at the stern was the boat’s control station with pilot and co-pilot seats and deck space for chairs and a small table. There was a glass windshield and canvas top and side-curtains with flexible see-through windows all the way to the flag mast at the stern. She was a “nar” little ship, with a powerful single V-8 engine. The only electronics was a deck hailer and a transistor radio, because CHASE had no power generator or radio-telephone, and these were the days before cell phones. The lapping of the waves against her wooden hull was usually the biggest sound aboard.
A typical day for me began with rising at first light, dining on a half melon on the stern deck, then a quarter mile swim out to the long break wall separating the boat harbor from the outer harbor of Chicago. I’d jog along the break wall to get some exercise – I was then an energetic 30 year old. Many days, when the winds were low, I’d weigh anchor and slowly cruise the boat out to near one of the city’s water intakes, a mile or so offshore, then shut the engine down and drift, while reading a book or magazine.
Weekends, I’d drop by the bar at the yacht club, or meet friends there for a harbor cruise or bar-be-que along the shore. Evenings I’d often row ashore and browse the bars and clubs in the State Street nightclub area, such as The Store, the jazz club under the Maryland Hotel or Butch Maguire’s, or I’d visit my former Lincoln Park neighborhood. I stayed in touch with some of my old business associates, and we’d talk about the vicissitudes of the Chicago PR business.
In late July, I had lunch with Hank Robertz, principal at a growing graphic arts firm that I’d done a lot of work through when I headed Midwest advertising and PR for Toyota. He told me that one of his good clients, McDonald’s, of increasing hamburger fame, was looking for a new account executive at its national PR agency, Cooper and Golin. Hank designed annual and quarterly financial publications for McDonald’s, and worked through their PR firm. He said Carl Kay, a former sports marketing guru, and now the McDonald’s account VP, was a very good guy I should meet.
Hank suggested I give Carl a call, just to talk PR and perhaps hear what I was missing in the Chicago job market. I had been left with a bitter feeling about working for a PR agency, as my six months at Burson Marsteller had ended abruptly when the client, Sears, had internalized much of the communications work we were doing for them at the agency. I had sworn to myself that the PR agency business was too skittish for me. It was a false start in the agency world. I had enjoyed briefly meeting agency founder and PR legend Harold Burson, who I’d get to know better 20 years later when we hired his firm for some specialized work. Harold and I still email today, nearly 40 years on.
While I was still hoping and thinking of chartering in the Bahamas, where I had first taken in the boating scene on a college vacation, and then on my honeymoon in 1969, I had yet to make any solid plans for my next steps. So I gave Carl a call. He said to come over to their office to chat, at 360 North Michigan Avenue, on the Chicago River. Several floors above the famed London House jazz club, the building was just across the bridge from the Wrigley Building.
I remembered that my business suits were in storage at my brother’s in Naperville. Carl replied, “Just come as you are. It’s OK. I heard from Hank that you’re living on a boat. Pretty cool!” So, wearing shorts and a sweat shirt, I rowed ashore in the dingy, walked across Grant Park, and up the elevator on Michigan Avenue, not then realizing I was taking the first steps away from an imagined life of serenity in the Bahamas charter business and back into the frenetic world of Chicago PR.
An hour that changed my life
While I didn’t know it then, my ship had come in, and I would work and grow through five promotions on the McDonald’s account from 1974 to 1981, and set a course that would take me to retirement at the cusp of the Millennium. Between my agency years on the McDonald’s account, and later working directly for the corporation, I’d invest 22 years under the Golden Arches, building the brand, enjoying the fries, and benefiting as an employee and stockholder of the world’s largest food service company.
Carl and I hit it off immediately. He was curious, creative and appreciated my professional background. He also took note that my best friend growing up, Jeff Seeberger, was a budding franchising executive at client McDonald’s and that Mike Quinlan, a mutual friend of Jeff and I from our college days, was now a fast rising senior executive in restaurant operations with the fast food firm. As it turned out, neither was a potential key client PR contact, but knowing them gave me some familiarity with the company.
While I’d been skeptical about going to work at an agency again, I became intrigued with the idea of working for a single major client – McDonald’s — where I could have broad senior responsibilities for building all aspects of public relationships for a fresh national brand, fast becoming known to every household. But little did I think then that I’d come to play a key role in a long-term communications program, one that would help propel McDonald’s, already a billion dollar restaurant company, to within about another decade become one of the world’s leading businesses.
Carl asked how much I hoped to earn. I think I asked if the pay would be in hamburgers. I’d never been too aggressive on compensation, and I was still smarting from my previous short tenure with Burson Marsteller, so I named a figure 20 percent higher than my job there. Carl took me in to meet agency chairman Al Golin, who was the guy who had made a cold-call on McDonald’s corporate founder Ray Kroc in 1956 and got a PR retainer fee from him. Al had never looked back, as he helped McDonald’s establish its friendly brand name. Al was outgoing and jovial, though his body language told me he was looking askance at my un-professional dress.
Nonetheless, before I could fully assess the implications, I had the job, as an account executive on the prestigious McDonald’s corporate account. I started immediately, and my girlfriend took me up Michigan Avenue to buy my first 3-piece suit, along with ties and dress shirts. I began commuting to my new private office, overlooking the river and the Wrigley Building, from the boat. I must have looked like something out of GQ, rowing ashore each morning in my 3-piece suit with a briefcase, tying the dingy up and walking the half-mile to Michigan Avenue.
But there were two problems commuting from the boat moored off Buckingham fountain. First, the only lamp I could use out on the mooring was weakly battery-powered, and when the boat rolled, my work papers would often slide off the dinette table onto the deck. Second, sometimes it rained. Rowing a boat ashore, awkwardly holding an umbrella under my armpit, was a good trick. And by now, it was September, and with fall coming fast, it was time to think of moving onshore.
I started to look for apartments in the Rush Street nightclub area, because living there sounded like fun, and it was walking distance to my office. I’d sold my car, an unreliable Renault 15 sports coupe, before I’d left Burson Marsteller, so I needed to be close to work. I found a nifty studio apartment in a high rise at Two East Oak Street, at the confluence of Oak, State and Rush Streets – the nightclub district. It faced toward the Loop, on the 32nd floor, and had a wall of windows, with no shades or curtains. There were no neighbors within several blocks, so I didn’t add any. I moved in with my dad’s old boat lamp, a blanket, a folding chair I’d found in the hall, a duffel bag of clothes, and a few kitchen items from the CHASE’s galley.
I was camping out in a high-rise
But it didn’t matter. I was learning the client and working long days, and drinking and eating at pubs near the office or my apartment most evenings, with my new account group friends. I rented a car to drive once or twice a week to McDonald’s offices in Oak Brook, or went with a workmate.
Then, at the end of September, I received a devastating phone call. In a severe early fall storm, the weekend before, a fierce wind had blown down the length of the lake from the northeast, with dramatic damage to areas of the harbor that were open to the surge from that direction. The CHASE had been in the bull’s eye. My twin bowlines attached to the mooring had held. But the force of the wind ripped the decking around the bow chock, and the boat was dashed against the cement seawall. The bottom finally cracked, they told me, and the boat sank right there, in front of the great fountain.
They had raised the boat with a scow crane; it was now drying out in a sling alongside the Chicago Yacht Club, where they’d identified me as the owner. I went down, and didn’t even try to board her. The CHASE was a total loss. Any thoughts I’d harbored of a cruising career were over, then and there.
When the insurance check came in, which was for more than I’d paid for the boat three seasons before, my girl friend Robin and I went straight down to the Carson Pirie Scott department store on State Street and furnished the apartment. That was one of the last things we did together. I think Robin had already written me off when I’d previously announced my plans to go to the Bahamas. Plus, my new PR job was becoming so all- consuming, including frequent travel to franchisee meetings and special PR events across the country, that I had little time for a real social life outside of my new work friends. The last straw with Robin was during a party at my apartment, when one of my office mates, Pat Healey, said, “Let’s play darts,” and she opened my closet door where the board was mounted on the back. Robin said she hadn’t known it was there. We soon drifted apart.
My life was quickly re-centered around a compact agency account team that became like a family to me. At first there were half a dozen or so of us account people plus support staff, who worked full-time on the McDonald’s national corporate PR account and the local Chicago area franchisee PR account. Not to mention Al Golin, who had been a trusted confidant and advisor for 20 years, not only to company founder Ray Kroc, but president Fred Turner and other board members and executive management and key franchisees. Al’s agency partner, Max Cooper, a former comedy writer, had just left to become the McDonald’s franchisee in Birmingham, Alabama, where he would one day own more than 20 McDonald’s restaurants and “earn more than Bob Hope,” as we liked to say around the office.
Our McDonald’s account group of the 1970s was not much like the paranoid agency types portrayed in the TV series “Madmen,” which captured the Chicago and New York advertising agency atmosphere of the early 60s. Our account VP, Carl, now known as Bear, was a family man who often had the account group over to his sprawling Evanston apartment for all-day Sunday brunches with his wife and two young kids.
While our tight little account group was something of a revolving door, with some staying with the account or the agency for just a year or two, others grew professionally on the account for a decade or more, and several remain close friends four decades later. The ever-expanding group of account executives, supervisors and officers over the seven-plus years I served on the account included: Carl, Chuck, Cheryl, Susanne, Pat, Jane, Joe, Bill, Jim, another Jim, Rich, Bud, Sarah, Leslie, Cathy, Jonni, Henry, Bridget, Susan, Melissa, Kerry and a few others whose names allude me, plus another dozen or more administrative staff, headed by Naomi, the ultimate office manager and task master.
Working with and supervising creative people can be draining, because they often display passionate and quirky personalities. One very creative account executive, Lynn, the sister of playwright David Mamet, had once worked at Penthouse magazine. She told us she had written both the Penthouse Forum’s reader questions as well as the steamy, sexy “expert” answers, often while sitting in her kitchen dinette with her hair in curlers, wearing an oversized bathrobe and slippers.
We worked long, intense hours, often into the evening, at our Michigan Avenue office, with several us making one or even two rushed daily round trips on the crowded expressway to McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook, 15 miles away. Some evenings, when we’d head down the elevator well after dark, we’d see famous jazz musicians like Ramsey Lewis tuning up on the stairs for their 10 o’clock show at the legendary London House jazz club on the first floor.
We had to blow off steam, and we’d often gather at night, with other young account people of the agency, at a hotel bar around the corner, or at the famed Wrigley Bar across the river, where we’d mingle with the ad types from McDonald’s marketing agencies, Needham, Harper Steers and Abelson/Frankel, or later, Leo Burnett. Bud Jones, the Ronald House coordinator, and I would close up the Greek Town restaurants, sometimes leaving 20 or more ouzo glasses on the table. Some lunch times, especially when the client had been yelling into the phone for an hour, we’d trip a few blocks to Ontario Street just east of Michigan Avenue to Ron of Japan, and make a two-hour lunch of rounds of saketini’s and sushi. Several of us were single, and between after-work gatherings and company parties, incidental romance among fellow workers and/or with young employees of our Oak Brook clients was not unusual. The fact that most of our circle worked 60 to 80 hour weeks meant these were the people I saw the most, and friendships outside that core were challenging to build or sustain.
Many Friday nights, I’d head home by 7 or 8PM, set the alarm for midnight, and get up to head around the corner to Mr. Kelly’s, where for a five dollar bar minimum I could catch Frank Sinatra or former Peoria comedian Richard Prior doing their late show. Other nights it was down a half block to Faces, where the dancing was just getting started. After all-night parties at my studio apartment on the 32nd floor, my friends and I would go downstairs and kitty-corner to the Oak Tree coffee shop for a dawn breakfast. On weekends, we’d head east on Oak to the Acorn bar, where they served a scrumptious big, bloody hamburger.
I first met Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s Corporation, at a luncheon fundraiser at the Conrad Hilton, where comedian Danny Thomas honored Ray for a large contribution to the St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. We sat at a table with Ray’s personal physician, who was traveling with him because of his multiple health problems, including diabetes. Ray’s doctor caught the attention of everyone at the table when he speculated that anyone who could invent a device people could hook up to under the table, to urinate during long banquet speeches, could make a fortune.
Other opportunities to chat with Ray and his top executives were at Al’s annual Christmas party, which were themed formal galas of increasing ambition, to thank the client and retain the close bonds built over the years. Elaborate invitations would herald these affairs at major loop hotels, where Ray’s favorite band leader, Joe Vito, would lead the dancing, while Al would do his Joey Bishop stand-up routine with bad jokes and his wife June, a former professional singer, would entertain. As the wine flowed, we account people would mingle with the mighty. I recall the thrill on introducing my dates to Ray and Joan Kroc, and how warm and engaging they were.
Our public relations activity for McDonald’s was by and large a growing portfolio of long-term and one-off positive, pro-active programs that McDonald’s franchisees could implement within their local markets, within an umbrella of support and publicity executed by our national agency. We worked closely in support of the company’s national advertising and marketing staff, as well as directly for various members of executive management. At one point, just to prove we could bring public relations value to every function at McDonald’s, we created a portfolio of ideas and initiatives for every company department, including accounting, security, training, franchising, legal, information systems and even for the mailroom (future McDonald’s CEO Mike Quinlan had started in the mailroom, honestly).
Shortly after joining the agency, Carl brought me out to Oak Brook to meet our senior-most client, Paul Schrage, executive vice president and chief marketing officer. Paul was very gracious to me, and said he thought my consumer advertising and PR experience with the hot and fast-rising Toyota brand would be relevant to working in support of McDonald’s.
It was already fall, and the agency’s largest PR project for McDonald’s was swinging into the final phases of planning, and I was put in charge. The account executive who’d led the project for several years had left the agency just before I joined. My first experience on the account was with the 1974 members of the McDonald’s All-American High School Band, plus band staff, who would be rehearsed over several days and cast into a unified band to march in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was a program designed to enhance McDonald’s image as a youth-oriented national company with tentacles reading into every state and community. One piece of the complex logistics for the project was travel, involving putting together separate flight itineraries to New York City and LA, for 102 high school musicians, coming from 102 towns across every state.
Never been a detail person
I had a short attention span, which I’ve heard is a common trait of creative people. But that was no excuse, and as my first major assignment I had to put myself not only into the big picture of this PR project, but attend to orchestrating logistics and assuring that every detail was covered. Apparently I was successful at over-compensating for my inherent weakness on details, as to this day, when I meet one of my old agency associates, their greeting is often, “Check with Chuck,” which is what was often said when there was any question on details during the project.
The Band project was indeed a crush of detail. But the million bits added up to waves of local and national positive publicity and community relations for McDonald’s, ranging from school send-off events in 102 towns hosted by local McDonald’s franchisees, to hundreds of newspaper articles and TV and radio interviews of musicians selected by our national committee. This culminated in many minutes of valuable scripted network television coverage of the Band’s performances in the Macy’s Parade, as well as in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena on New Year’s Day. The Band also performed in concert in places that ranged from Carnegie Hall to the Kennedy Center to Chicago’s Symphony Hall. It was a model community relations program, with a major national payoff in positive public relations.
The Band was selected, organized and led by maestro Paul LaValle (his assistant demanded we refer to him as the maestro), formerly music director of Radio City Music Hall. While Paul LaValle was of short personal stature, we liked to say that he was the tallest band director, when he conducted the band standing atop the “world’s largest drum” float in the Macy’s parade.
Other account staff from the agency acted as PR and logistical support for the project, which also involved entertaining a number of McDonald’s VIPs. This whirl of details all emanated from my little office overlooking the spotlighted Wrigley Building across the Chicago River. One of the key logistical supporters was our travel consultant, Vicki Edelston, who oversaw travel arrangements for the band members and staff from all over the country. She was manager of the Loop agency, Board of Trade Travel, which handled everything, and later owner of Victoria Travel, and one of the first suppliers I met in my new job. I was the client for her largest corporate account, and I remember the moment she first stepped into my office door. I didn’t have a clue then that the dark-haired, well-dressed young woman who smiled and caught my attention that day, and whom I worked with over the following several years, before we ever had a date, would in 1978 become my new wife.
The annual band trips at Thanksgiving and New Years, which I did for seven consecutive years, were grueling marathons. Myself and other members of our PR agency, along with Al himself and his family, would head into New York and LA several days ahead of band member arrivals to set up logistics with the hotel, meet with NBC network executives on parade coverage, and coordinate with the band staff. Once the band members came in, chaos reigned, as they went into rehearsals and local tours and we began to work the media coverage. Fifteen hour working days were topped with doing bedchecks at night and dawn wakeups for 102 teenagers, many of whom had never been away from home overnight, much less in New York City or the West Coast, without their parents. Our AE Pat was the “band mother,” bucking up the shy members, and keeping the more socially active extroverts in line. We had no desire to produce a “band baby” dividend from bringing so many diverse young people together.
One Thanksgiving eve as the band and staff sat down to a beautiful turkey dinner after grueling rehearsals at The New York Sheridan, I remember feeling quite sorry for myself, because I had to skip the festivities and spend that evening jumping in and out of cabs on the cold, rainy streets of Manhattan, delivering last-minute band press releases to the news media.
Another year, I remember the fun we had setting up at Carnegie Hall for a concert performance by the band. Jazz great Lionel Hampden was to be the guest musician. During rehearsal, my client Frank and I cajoled “Hamp” to play a number with us on the kazoo, and since then I’ve been able to say, “I played Carnegie Hall.” A decade later, when I’d gone to work on McDonald’s headquarters staff as director of corporate communications, I called “Hamp” and he agreed to appear in a PR film we were producing, called The McDonald’s Story, recognizing the public service value to communities and young musicians of the All-American Band program.
I also remember from the mid-70s visiting the breezy open rooftop of the World Trade Center, with the band members, and looking out across the harbor with them at the Statue of Liberty. It was a moving experience, one that became bittersweet in 2001. One of my last business lunches in New York, before I retired at the Millennium, was with a financial TV reporter at the Windows on the World restaurant near the top of Tower One.
The band program might have been enough, but it was only the tip of the iceberg of the PR responsibilities for megalith client McDonald’s. In the mid-70s, McDonald’s had only a single person on their corporate staff to manage PR, and he was an old-time marketing guy, not a PR expert. He was frustrated by his job, because company management would turn to the agency first for PR advice. It was because our agency chairman, Al Golin, had been retained directly by Ray Kroc to do communications for the fledgling firm, back in 1956, even before the company had ever run it’s first advertising. So, McDonald’s entire PR operation remained concentrated in our agency staff, even when I joined them in 1974.
One of my jobs was to do McDonald’s financial PR. McDonald’s had become a publically owned company in 1966. Because I had financial relations experience at Toyota, even though I was not otherwise schooled or even inclined towards finance issues, I became the financial publicist. Virtually every financial and corporate news release issued by McDonald’s from 1974 until I left Golin-Harris in 1981, was drafted, distributed to the media and otherwise handled by me. I came to think that the value-added I brought to financial relations was that of translating esoteric financial data into plain English, which was the only way I could understand it myself. On at least one occasion, I even conducted a corporate briefing for professional investors with no one else from the company involved. Not bad for an agency account executive with no formal training in finance, who had dropped out of Accounting 101 in college, and didn’t even balance my own checkbook.
Years before McDonald’s became a global top sponsor of the Olympics, I found a way to help the company elevate hamburger-flipping competitions among its restaurant employees, which McDonald’s called “crew members.” An executive in McDonald’s personnel department, who saw the morale and training benefits of these friendly competitions in making fries, hamburgers and shakes, challenged the agency to wrap it together into a program to introduce to the entire McDonald’s national restaurant “system.” I got the assignment, and poured through hundreds of pages of notes and reports to come up with a compelling program.
Finally, we implemented what later became an obvious theme, the McDonald All-American Team, modeled after the Olympics format, in which there would be a series of events at the food preparation and customer service stations where crew members would compete for gold, silver and bronze levels of achievement. The best of each restaurant crew would compete against the best of others in each market.
It came to me to create a brochure that laid out the entire program, and yet as the deadline approached I had produced nothing. The weekend before our proposal was due, I paced my new one-bedroom apartment at 455 W. Grant in Lincoln Park with a hand held voice reorder, for hours, and dictated the entire presentation brochure, which was typed up, illustrated and turned in to the client the following week. To this day, 35 years later, McDonald’s still conducts eliminations in McDonald’s Crew Olympics every four years, and sends the global winners to staff the McDonald’s restaurants, the only fast food restaurants permitted, inside and outside the summer and winter Olympics Games.
At the zoo
One of the first unsolicited ideas I’d come up with for McDonald’s came out of my enjoyment of zoos, like the one in Brookfield behind my old high school and the famous one in Lincoln Park. Our former family neighbor from Riverside, Les Fisher, who had taken over a few years before from Marlin Perkins, directed that zoo. The zoo had a special area called the Farm in the Zoo, which was a compound like the buildings on a family farm, where city kids could see cows and horses, and pigs and chickens in a setting to which few urbanites had access. I suggested to McDonald’s, in an early attempt to paint them with a quality, responsible reputation for food quality and integrity, that they offer to sponsor that area and rename it, “Old McDonald’s Farm.” It was too soon. My good suggestion was ignored.
In its early years, McDonald’s drive-ins were often seen as usurpers of homegrown local diners and restaurants, and so establishing genuinely sincere community relations became a priority of the company’s public relations efforts. New McDonald’s restaurant franchisees often were relocated to communities where there was good business potential, which made their credibility when settling as outsiders into new small towns and neighborhoods even more of a challenge. One way McDonald’s addressed this was through fund-raising for local causes, like funding jerseys for a high school team, or raising funds for a Rotary or Chamber of Commerce project. Restaurant owners were constantly bombarded with such requests from their neighbors, and yet, as small business people, their resources were limited, and they sometimes wondered if their support would in any way come back to benefit their business.
One of the things we did for our client was scan their own local markets and look for success stories that could be packaged and shared throughout the System. We called the process “Best bets.” We looked at dozens of local fund raising approaches that had varying success in helping local causes while supporting restaurant sales either directly or indirectly. We finally hit on a concept that seemed to have broad potential application, and one of our account executives, Susanne, came up with a name for it.
We called it McDonald’s Cares, and it involved creating a certificate that would be good for one dollar in food and beverages at a specified McDonald’s restaurant or restaurants. Upon application, a certain number of the certificates would be sold or given to a not-for-profit organization to sell to its supporters, who in turn could redeem them for full face value in McDonald’s products. If the McDonald’s certificates were given to the charity for 50 cents, for example, and their volunteers sold by them for one dollar, the charity would pocket 50 cents for their cause. McDonald’s, in turn, would bring in those customers with certificates, who often would purchase even more at regular prices. So, there were three winners: the charity would raise money, the customers would receive real value for their contribution, and McDonald’s would gain friends and business.
The young and upcoming McDonald’s executive I worked with to get the McDonald’s Cares program approved was company controller Jim Cantalupo, who, a little over 25 years later as chairman and CEO, would rebuild McDonald’s greatness after a slump. He helped us cut through accounting and redemption red tape to roll out the program to franchisees across the nation.
I sometimes think the term “public relations” is a misnomer, and has come to often imply something slick, like the negative image of political “spin”, or the cheap promotion of Hollywood or music celebrities. Sometimes, those interpretations are valid. But more often than not, authentic “public relations” is really all about “building public relationships.” A public relationship is different than the private relationships between people, or among family members, or with work teams. A public relationship is one that a person, an organization, or a brand, has with an entire large group of people, sometimes in the trade referred to as a “target audience.” Such a “target audience” may comprise customers or potential customers, or those “influencers” who guide public opinion. Today, social media like Facebook or Twitter develop even more personalized relationships with members of target audiences.
Using the broader definition of building legitimate public relationships, one of the best company examples of one was and is being created though a program I was fortunate enough to become involved with at its early stages – the Ronald McDonald House. A Ronald House is a housing facility, with all the features of a private home, available free or at low cost, to the families of seriously ill children to stay, while the child is being treated at a nearby children’s hospital. Today, there are some 330 Ronald McDonald Houses and related Ronald McDonald Family rooms near children’s hospitals around the globe. Thousands of community volunteers staff and support the Ronald Houses, and some 30,000 family members a night benefit from these sanctuaries, where they can temporarily stay near, or even with, their sick child.
In 1975, there was just one Ronald House, in Philadelphia. It had opened the year before, as a joint effort of the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital, and their fund raising partners at the Philadelphia Eagles NFL team and the area McDonald’s franchisees. The house had been named after McDonald’s iconic clown because of the positive, hopeful image the clown character represented.
At Cooper and Golin, we were scanning the country for great new community relations ideas for McDonald’s to seed nationally. Our Chicago market PR account person, Pat, came across the case study of the creation of the Philadelphia house. She was looking for a big idea for the Chicago franchisees. I was supervising Pat and the local McDonald’s account, while I worked on the national account. We reviewed the concept with Pat, and decided to present it to the Chicago franchisees. They embraced it. When we made contact with Children’s Memorial Hospital, we found out they had already heard of the Philadelphia project, through a children’s cancer doctor. Soon, there was a Chicago not-for-profit forming to organize the 2nd Ronald McDonald House.
It was becoming clear we were onto an idea that had legs. And, even before that second house opened, we were getting queries from McDonald’s markets and children’s hospitals in other areas of the country about the feasibility of a local Ronald House. Within about a year, a group of children’s oncologists, parent volunteers, McDonald’s people and NFL executives, led by Jim Murray, general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles, had been formed into a National Advisory Board to explore possibilities for expanding into more Ronald Houses. I was fortunate to be named to that original board, and to function as its first coordinator. I wrote the original manual on how to explore feasibility of creating a local Ronald McDonald House charity, and I put together the first national conference for those interested in exploring such projects for their communities. We were surprised when we filled the auditorium of Hamburger University with more than a hundred eager people. When we attended the rainy grand opening of the nation’s 2nd Ronald House, in Chicago in 1975, officiating were Ray Kroc, Chicago’s Mayor Michael Bilandic, owner George Halas of the Chicago Bears, along with visitor Leonard Tose, owner of the Philadelphia Eagles.
A small squad from our National Advisory Board, usually consisting of myself, Dr. Ed Baum of Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital, Charlie Marino, volunteer parent of a child with leukemia, and McDonald’s Chicago franchisee Bill Chunowitz, was already criss-crossing the nation, meeting with groups interested in creating new Ronald Houses. We presented our slide show about the creation of the first two houses in dozens of communities. As the house project was turning into a major national program for McDonald’s, it became clear we had to staff-up at the agency, so I hired Bud Jones as the first full-time national coordinator for the program. Bud was a fellow veteran, and had been the youngest major in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, and had worked in PR for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. He would go on to help dramatically accelerate the development on Ronald Houses everywhere, and became a good friend. He and I would often compare notes late into the night, closing the bars at the Wrigley or in Greek Town.
Soon I was attending the grand openings of new houses, beginning with the third Ronald House, in Denver. I flew to that opening on the corporate G2 jet accompanying rising McDonald’s executive Mike Quinlan, who was to be the grand opening speaker. I had met Mike back during college days, when he was a fraternity brother at Loyola with my best friend Jeff Seeberger. Jeff had then moved up to director of franchising for McDonald’s, and Mike was to go on to become CEO of McDonald’s from the late 80s to the late 90s, a period when we would work closely together as I served as chief spokesperson for the company. I must have written more than half a dozen news releases about Mike’s promotions over the years, plus arranged and accompanied him on hundreds of media interviews, and we still remain in contact, into the second decade of the 21st century.
1975 was also McDonald’s 20th anniversary, and our PR efforts ranged from 1950’s nostalgia to projecting how many French fries it would take to reach the moon. Company founder Ray Kroc spoke from the stage of the Chicago Civic Opera House over one of the first live satellite hook-ups to assemblies of McDonald’s franchisees, and a gala anniversary celebration was held at Chicago’s Palmer House Hotel. We photographed Ronald McDonald balancing 20 Quarter Pounder hamburgers on a silver platter and designed a striking 20th anniversary logo for the firm. A record 30 million regular hamburgers were served at the nostalgic 1955 price of 15 cents each in a national promotion on April 20th.
Birthday for a billionaire
Ray Kroc’s 75th birthday was in 1977, and Gerry Newman, the company’s chief accounting officer, challenged Al Golin to have the agency come up with the perfect birthday gift for the billionaire, to be presented on behalf of everyone associated with McDonald’s. What do you give a person who has everything tangible he ever wanted? I came up with the idea. It was to create, in Ray’s name, a new charity that could help boost the development of the budding Ronald McDonald House program. It would be called the Ray A. Kroc Ronald McDonald Children’s Fund, and it would provide seed money to begin each new Ronald McDonald House. McDonald’s employees, franchisees and suppliers contributed millions. It became the charity for the entire McDonald’s System.
When Ray died in 1984, that entity was renamed Ronald McDonald Children’s Charities, and today it is known as Ronald McDonald House Charities, and is the third largest children’s charity in the world. It is supported not only by the McDonald’s System, but also by millions of McDonald’s customers and friends worldwide who make small contributions on a continuing basis. RMHC supports not only Ronald McDonald Houses and Family Rooms, but mobile Caremobiles and other activities related to children’s health.
Another big idea that sprouted from the mid 70s was the first united national marketing event for McDonald’s famous sandwich, the Big Mac, which had first been introduced in restaurants nationally in 1968. McDonald’s aggressive and far-seeing marketing director David Green wanted it to be a full “vertical” campaign, engaging all the resources of advertising, public relations, sales promotion and store displays. The McDonald’s franchisee for the Birmingham, Alabama market, Max Cooper, who had once been a partner in Al Golin’s PR agency, had been locally successful with an original promotion idea he called the Big Mac Attack. The idea was that a customer felt a hunger attack coming on, and only a Big Mac would satisfy his craving. We were charged with developing a PR campaign for the national promotion, and we adapted and expanded on Max’s idea.
I remember brainstorming with a couple of my agency associates in the empty bathtub of a freelance writer we’d brought on for the project. We created humorous radio “continuity” scripts for disk jockeys to read, when we delivered hot Big Macs to their studios while they were on the air. We created an editorial cartoon for the wire services, portraying a giant gorilla fending off planes from the top of the Empire State Building while holding a Big Mac in one paw to satisfy his “Big Mac Attack.” We created contests for customers to beat the clock reciting the Big Mac Jingle, “Twoallbeefpattieslettucesaucepicklescheeseonasesameseedbun.” Soon, the Big Mac Attack and the jingle were part of the media and the public’s contemporary vernacular.
On an even lighter note, and as a diversion, several of us on the account staff, noting that our questionable dining habits were beginning to show in our physiques, ginned up over some drinks a concept that we thought could become our own “Pet Rock” – a phenomenon that could become a popular rage, like some late-night TV promotions, even though of marginal real functionality. We called it “Love Handlers International.” Believe it or not, I found a yellowed, hand-written draft of ideas for a developmental plan for it in my basement files. Our objective was to somehow market “A social philosophy unlike any other weight-loss or fitness program — a unique comic – but generally viable – quasi-club that will capture the general public’s perennial fascination with weight-loss techniques as an emotional catharsis.”
We would meet at my apartment overlooking the park, often beginning with a “Friendly Athletic Time – or F.A.T.” phase, and go bowling, biking, walking or take a hike. We’d then return to the apartment for what we dubbed a “Weigh-ing Wall Session,” followed by brainstorming over wine and heavy snacks, the main event, which we called our “Lardo Lark.” One slogan for the campaign we came up with was, “What you’ve lost, the country has gained.” Could still have legs today? Our song would be called “Holding on to the Love Handles of Your Heart.” Our symbol would be a widened “heart” stickpin that resembled love handles. Promotional items we might market would be “foam love handles,” to demonstrate the “before” form, before achieving the happy slender of Love handlers International.
Back to reality, I’d been happy to join the agency in 1974 with the title of account executive. Some think it is the best title in the agency world, because it is associated with the pure bedrock of account work, I was just turning 30 then, and perhaps should have aimed higher. I’d also been happy with my starting salary, which as I mentioned was 20 percent higher than my previous position as an AE with the Burson Marsteller agency. But one day, arriving at the office, I chatted briefly with a city employee who swept the curb in front of our building, proudly wearing his big City of Chicago belt buckle. I asked what he made, and to my dismay, this political appointee, who usually disappeared for the day by 10 AM, was paid more than me, with my college degree and six years of professional experience.
After some jostling with management, recognizing that I had become something of a creative force within the agency, but was managing more and more of the staff, my own promotions and raises finally started to come along. I was soon a senior account executive, then an account supervisor and an account group supervisor. While the agency business is infamous for title inflation, the five thousand dollar or so raises that typically accompanied each promotion added to both my self-esteem and helped with my lifestyle. I moved to a larger apartment in Lincoln Park, with a fireplace and a walled patio, and I sold my grandmother’s old Olds, and bought a three-year-old Mercedes.
I remember driving into the garage under our new offices at 500 N. Michigan Avenue, across from the Tribune, and running into Al Golin. Al admired my classy-looking green sedan, and cautioned me to park in the back of the employee lot when I visited McDonald’s headquarters, so I wouldn’t put off anyone on the client’s staff. Al soon went car shopping himself, inspired by my handsome used Mercedes, but couldn’t bring himself to buy a German car, for reasons that were obvious to me. He wound up with a Jaguar.
Lest I go by the nation’s Bicentennial too quickly, it was clear to us that an American business icon like McDonald’s had to recognize the country’s 200th birthday, for the benefit of our customers and the McDonald’s family of employees and franchisees. The smoke was thick in our conference room as we brainstormed how best to mark the occasion. We decided that we wanted to introduce a forward-looking project, yet one that would harken back to enduring values and tradition. In the end, we created a PR campaign called McDonald’s Trees for America. The concept was bolted together by Susanne, a bright but low-key account executive. The program gained lots of tentacles from the creativity of the entire team.
McDonald’s would look to a green and growing future by planting 1776 trees in every state in the union, with the first tree planted by the governor on each state capitol grounds, with the participation of leading area McDonald’s franchisees, creating not only state-wide publicity but providing a good opportunity to solidify relations between state officials and their McDonald’s constituents. In actuality, we set an identical budget to buy trees for each state, based on the rough cost of 1776 good-sized typical tree seedlings, and then let the state’s department of forestry determine what trees were most needed, how many and where they could best be planted. AE Pat would travel to every state, except when schedules conflicted, with a silver shovel to coordinate the logistics and publicity for each state capitol tree planting ceremony throughout the Bicentennial year. She never forgave me for doing the Hawaii planting, but I reminded her that I also did Billings, Montana. We planted the very first tree with the company’s USA President, Ed Schmitt, at the Morton Arboretum, a major suburban Chicago botanic garden, and featured a photo of the ceremony in the company’s financial annual report to shareholders.
The Hawaii tree planting reminds me of what became my ultimate expense-account business trip. McDonald’s holds massive franchisee conventions every two years, and in 1976, decided to break them into four smaller meetings. One would be in Florida, and three held one after the other on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The meetings entailed large general sessions with McDonald’s management, many seminars, and a vast tented display floor where McDonald’s departments and suppliers would man booths and exhibits of their latest products and services. The agency was tasked with creating and manning such a display for the corporate PR department.
Because of the cost of travel and length of the meetings, we could only have a few of the agency group attend. So, Al Golin, of course, the new account director/VP Chuck Gelman and myself were selected (Chuck was a former J. Walter Thompson PR executive, as was Henry, who we hired after working with him on a Band project in NYC). We would need to spend nearly three weeks on Kauai, between the three-day meetings and set-up days in between. Because the convention hotels were filled with franchisees and company executives, we rented condos on the beach across the island, and cars for the commute. It was rough duty, manning an exhibit booth for a few hours most days, then heading back to the beach. After the meeting, the other Chuck and I, along with the company’s PR manager, took a hydrofoil ferry over to Honolulu to coordinate with the local McDonald’s PR agency and manage the tree planting ceremonies with the state’s governor. By the time we wrapped up, it had been nearly a winter’s month of PR work in Hawaii, all on expense account, and much of it part time, with plenty of opportunity for cavorting in the surf, discovering the islands, and making new friends. Tough duty.
Partly because McDonald’s business was so geographically dispersed, it was a company of continuous meetings, to keep its people aligned and up to date, and exchange information. Our agency team participated in many of these, including all the national advertising meetings, which often brought together nearly a thousand people, representing local and national agencies, corporate staff and local franchisee representatives. Several times a year, I made presentations to these groups, updating them on our national PR issues and initiatives, as well as the growing portfolio of “Bests Bet” projects from local markets. We spoke of the millions of positive “impressions” our programs created among customers and influencers, and it was gratifying to receive the applause of those who were paying the bills.
Another “tough duty” was working with Aye Jaye, the talented comedian and circus character who served as the “training Ronald” to all the people who played Ronald McDonald around the country. McDonald’s original Oak Brook office was in a modern seven-story building, about a block from the Butler National Golf Course and Polo Grounds. One of my early experiences working with Aye Jaye was at the Polo Grounds, which proved to be an elegant setting to entertain important McDonald’s guests. One such guest I was asked to host was Daniel Ng, McDonald’s partner for Hong Kong. We took him to the Sunday polo game, and there was a special photo session after, with the winning team captain, Paul Butler, Miss America, Daniel Ng, and Ronald McDonald. As the silver trophy was passed around and the photos taken, I found myself trying to shoo-off Aye Jaye from pinching the bottom of Miss America. Aye Jaye was known for his practical jokes, and part of our job was to see they remained private, and that the press never caught on to the real comedian behind the famous clown.
The original Ronald has been created by the Washington D.C. McDonald’s ad agency and played in early commercials by Willard Scott, a local DJ who went on to become the famous TV weatherman. Willard has always been proud of his McDonald’s lineage, and we included him in many later events, including some for Ronald McDonald House.
Many in the public, especially those who didn’t often patronize drive-in restaurants, had the impression we served what they called “junk food,” that they considered synonymous with “fast food.” The truth was, at least at McDonald’s, the food was tasty, pretty basic fare – meat, potatoes, bread, milk and soft drinks, from quality sources, simply prepared. The facts that it was served quickly – fast – and inexpensively, contributed to suspicions about its quality.
Then there was Chef Rene
Ray Kroc, when McDonald’s had its headquarters on Chicago’s LaSalle Street, before moving to suburban Oak Brook, in 1971, liked to dine in style. One of his favorite restaurants for lunch was the Whitehall Club, a private dining establishment in the prestigious Whitehall Hotel. The club’s classically trained European executive chef was Rene Arend, formerly of the Drake Hotel. Ray had kidded Rene for some time, telling him he could make a lot more people happy and share his talent if he came with McDonald’s. Eventually the idea sunk in.
For double his salary at the club, Rene finally agreed to come over to McDonald’s as its first executive chef. A special kitchen, which included both McDonald’s equipment and other gourmet and experimental cooking gear, was installed for Rene and his new staff on the top executive floor at the new Oak Brook headquarters. One of the first new menu items he completed was the Chicken McNugget, adapted from an idea of company president Fred Turner’s wife Patty. What Rene added, which made the McNugget famous, was the classical French concept of serving them with a choice of sauces, to add distinct flavor to the chopped and battered chicken entrée. What many don’t know to this day is that the hot mustard sauce available with McNuggets is based on a recipe Rene had created at the Whitehall Club.
At the agency, now named Golin/Harris, because of the departure of Max Cooper and the addition of Tom Harris as Al’s partner, my team came up with the idea of touring Rene to daytime women’s television shows. We’d previously done this with great success at Burson-Marsteller with kitchen-planning experts from Sears. But there was a problem, one that required a specialized public relations skill to resolve. Rene, though possessed of a charming European accent and a good sense of humor, had spent his life in kitchens and was totally unused to public speaking. In fact, when he spoke to another person, he usually stared at his own feet.
So, before we could even begin to work with him to develop at cooking/talking routine for demonstration cooking on TV, we had to build up his conversational confidence and skills through speaker training. Together with a professional specialist, one who often worked with political candidates and CEOs, I brought Rene into a TV studio at McDonald’s famous Hamburger University. We set up the kind of small, portable demonstration kitchen that might work on a commercial TV show, and went to work with Rene. The training, which with many executives might have run to two or three days, entailed two weeks of grueling effort for Rene, and us. But in the end, he was ready for prime time.
We retained an account executive, Cathy, especially to arrange Rene’s publicity tour, create recipe brochures, PR materials, and accompany him to local TV stations across the country. Rene went on to not only raise the culinary standards of McDonald’s, but to be a popular and credible national food quality spokesperson for the brand. In an era when food quality was more of a popular issue than nutrition became later on, Golin-Harris had helped make Chef Rene a star.
The Hamburger University management training center, then based in its own building in suburban Elk Grove, was not a cooking school. The students were new McDonald’s franchisees and restaurant managers, who were expected to already be familiar with the basics of how McDonald’s kitchens and service operations worked. HU, as they call it, was a place for refining management and organizational skills, and achieving a Bachelor of Hamburgerology degree was a requirement for a career at McDonald’s. Ray Kroc wrote about HU and the early days in his 1977 book, “Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s.” When I joined the corporate staff in the mid-80s, one of the first requirements was that I earn that degree.
In the late 70s, HU was approaching a milestone – it would soon celebrate its 10,000th graduate. This would be another marker for the astounding growth and success of the business, and also demonstrate how serious the company was about the leadership in its universe of local restaurants. I came up with an idea to publicize the occasion, one that would require the personal participation of Ray Kroc, and Al Golin loved it. I asked Al if he would approach Ray to discuss it, and he said, “You call him.” While I had met Ray at the annual agency Christmas party, and at some company events, I had not yet worked with him directly. While Ray was a charmer and a natural salesman, he had a reputation for an explosive temper if an employee or franchisee disappointed him.
I shouldn’t have worried. Ray said, “Fine, great idea, just tell me when to be at HU and I’ll do whatever you want.” Ray had a profound sense of public relations opportunity. The idea was that Ray would have his photo taken congratulating the 10,000th graduate of HU with the school’s dean under the massive lighted Hamburger University sign, which stood between the building and the busy Northwest Tollway, and was seen by tens of thousands every day. The bottom of the tremendous sign mimicked the regular restaurant signs with the periodically updated wording, “More Than XX billion hamburgers Served.” I had that line replaced with the wording, “More Than 10,000 Graduated,” and the number would increase each time another thousand graduated. Wire services across the nation picked up the photos, and local TV and radio stations covered the ceremony. The Sun Times ran an entire page of photos of the event with Ray.
In the spirit of Ray’s commitment to “giving back to the communities that make us successful,” we were always looking for new charitable ideas. One we latched onto, and is still alive and well 40 years hence, is McHappy Day. George Cohon, McDonald’s legendary chairman in Canada, pioneered it in 1977 with his remarkably talented marketing and PR troops. On a designated day each year, McDonald’s Canada would close their business offices, and the staff and suppliers would go to work alongside the restaurant crews to serve customers and raise money for children’s charities. And community officials and media would be invited to work in the restaurants alongside the franchisees and their staff, serving customers and helping the charities. It was a McHappy Day indeed, and we tripped up to McDonald’s headquarters city, Toronto, to document and film the event, which raised millions across the country on that one day.
Back in the U.S., we liked the concept, not only because of the enormous charitable and customer impact, but because it gave new meaning to a traditional U.S. event, Store Day, in which McDonald’s office workers would work alongside restaurant workers on one day a year in recognition of the importance of serving the ultimate customer – the public. We set out across the country, training and motivating the local market McDonald’s Co-Ops of franchisees to embrace McHappy Day. Two key directors on the corporate staff, Kathy from marketing and Jeff from PR, traveled with us to make the sale. We produced films and training manuals to promote the promotion to our people. The day of the first national event, we set up a command center at the Golin/Harris office on Michigan Avenue to receive and tally the charitable contributions. It was a sort of internal telethon, and, after months of preparation, the U.S. McDonald’s System raised many millions, and created a ton of positive publicity, all while boosting employee morale, all in just one day, minimizing disruption of normal restaurant operations.
A decade later, while on a business trip to Singapore when I had become director of corporate communications for McDonald’s, I had the opportunity to work in a local McDonald’s on McHappy Day, inside the Singapore YMCA, alongside one of my old Golin/Harris account team staff, Pat, by then a senior vice president of the agency. We even cleaned that YMCA restroom.
McDonald’s had a lot of experience with one famous U.S. telethon in particular, prior to creation of McHappy Day. McDonald’s had become the first corporate sponsor of the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Many McDonald’s markets across the land participated in raising funds in the restaurants for local MD telethons. Our job at Golin/Harris was to provide creative materials for our local markets, and to manage the relationship with the MDA and the national telethon, broadcast from Las Vegas. We would recruit and train franchisees and restaurant crewmembers to fly to Vegas, who presented contributions from their markets to Jerry on the live telethon. We designed a dramatic McDonald’s tote board on which to chart our donations as they were reported. I was lucky to be just off stage the night Jerry and Dean Martin were reunited at the Telethon after many years apart.
We made many trips out to Las Vegas for the telethons and planning events through the 70s. We even tied in the McDonald’s All-American Band, by having a breakout jazz band from the program appear on the national telethon. These occasions gave us tremendous television publicity exposure, nationally and locally, while building internal support for the program. Jerry would sometimes appear at McDonald’s marketing meetings with franchisees to promote support of MDA. But he was struggling with what some thought were prescription drugs and was difficult to handle, at best. I recall meeting his limousine backstage at a suburban Chicago hotel, and when we opened the car door, Jerry was kicking and screaming on the floor. I escorted the disheveled star through the back corridors enroute to the stage, where hundreds of franchisees waited in the audience. It was amazing to see him pull himself together as we walked and talked, under pressure to perform and become the Jerry we knew from TV and the movies.
Speaking of kicking and screaming
I have to say a few words about clients. Having been on both sides of the client/agency relationship on several occasions, I know how challenging the relationship dynamics can be. I started out my career on the client side, in jobs with Allstate Insurance and Toyota. At Toyota in particular, I had close, frequent and demanding relations with senior agency people at both PR and advertising agencies. I liked the agency people assigned to our account, and my personality default is to like people until or unless they give me reasons to feel otherwise. I felt the agency folks I dealt with were smart, fair and direct, and I hope they felt the same about me. They were also fun to be with socially, which certainly helped.
At Golin/Harris, some of the early McDonald’s clients directly responsible for the agency relationship were another story altogether. I won’t mention names, at least of those I disliked and distrusted. As I mentioned before, McDonald’s had not developed internal expertise in PR in its first couple of decades, relying instead on Al Golin and his account people to do it all. By the time I joined the agency in 1974, McDonald’s had named a former regional marketing manager as their first PR director. He was never comfortable in the assignment, and unhappy that he’d inherited an agency that had more credibility with his bosses than did he. He felt like a caretaker more than like a client in control of the budget and strategy. He had no internal staff at first, beyond a secretary, and could barely keep up with all the agency was doing, through its own many contacts throughout corporate management and the McDonald’s franchisee community. The most troubling thing about him to me was that, out of his own inadequacy and frustration, he undercut our account director, and through trumped-up accusations, cost him his job.
He would sometimes come downtown, demanding to immediately see the senior account staff at some restaurant near our office, and then have nothing to say. He’d demand we drive out to Oak Brook on a moment’s notice, and then ignore us for hours while we sat outside his office. He would yell and scream at us, and refuse to support our recommendations. He finally convinced the company’s U.S. president to require the agency to present its credentials and plans, as if it was “pitching” a new account, to the entire corporate officer staff. We prepped for weeks, and then rented space at a nearby hotel to make the presentation. Our client sat at the back of the room to watch us present our ideas and ourselves. When we were finished, and had answered questions from the audience, one of the senior management came to the front and embraced Al Golin, while the rest applauded. Our client quietly left the rear of the room and submitted his resignation the next day.
Chuck Gelman and I recommended his replacement, another regional marketing manager, but one with some solid PR credentials. He’d created a local all-star basketball program that we at the agency had spotted through our “best bets” efforts and transformed into the McDonald’s All-American High School Basketball Team, a program that produced such stars as Michael Jordan and also continues to this day. Our client was a sports fan and also an early supporter of youth soccer. We developed for McDonald’s a program called Side-Kick Soccer, and brought on an account executive to promote it nationally, but we were a little too early for the broad acceptance of soccer in schools.
But our client was also a troubled soul, and a morning was not complete until he had called one of us to yell and scream. Perhaps we were just too confident in ourselves to be compliant enough for him. While he understood PR and how it could mesh with marketing, he was not a good manager of people. He too left the company after a few years. His departure brought an end to an era in which I must admit one of my biggest professional motivations had been to outlast some despicable clients.
Our next PR director, who had been on the national marketing staff, was a different story. Jeff Franklin was creative, fun and thought big. He had been a champion of introducing McHappy Day to the U.S. system. He became a cheerleader, booster and partner in creating new ideas. And he was excited beyond belief in the potential growth of the Ronald McDonald House Program. At one of our national conferences for those operating and interested in developing Ronald Houses, we had Ray Kroc as our special guest. Jeff met Kroc as he arrived at our meeting, and standing with us, told Ray of the potential to develop many more houses. When Ray arose to speak at the meeting, rather than endorsing the rapid growth, he’d been so bowled over by Jeff’s enthusiasm, that he felt the need to caution the group about the risks of moving too quickly.
Needless to say, Jeff forged ahead aggressively on all fronts. But, unfortunately for Jeff, he developed a reputation for over-reaching, and in particular, for over-spending, and after a few years of excesses, even with strong results, his spending caught up with him. Then Sandy Silver came in from the D.C. region. Chuck Gelman and I had thought he was an intuitive PR guy, with a strong marketing bent and attractive leadership skills. Sandy went on to become an influential McDonald’s marketing VP, and then later headed McDonald’s national promotional agency, Creata. Dean Barrett came in from the Florida Region, and was strong on the Ronald House program growth. He went on to become a long-term senior international marketing officer with the company.
In that period, the company brought in its first experienced media relations director, to work with the press. McDonald’s, despite its proactive menu of PR programs managed by the agency, had been reluctant to deal with the press so proactively on corporate issues. Fred, by then McDonald’s CEO, and primarily still a restaurant operations guy, was notoriously suspicious of the press. Doug, who had been chief spokesman with a major airline, was cast in that role, but not with much support from top management. When the company had been accused, falsely, of using worms in its beef, Doug called a press conference, and in the process inadvertently drew more attention to the scurrilous charge. He didn’t last long in Oak Brook. Fred Turner still respected the PR sensibilities of Al Golin and company more than anyone inside the corporate office.
As my own experience with the client expanded, I took on additional responsibility for communications in the growing international area. I recall chatting with the agency guy for McDonald’s in Germany, who was looking for ideas to launch the first company restaurants in Hamburg. A light went on, and I suggested the theme: “the hamburger returns to Hamburg.” I explained that popular history indicated that when sailors from the port of Hamburg, who brought to distant lands the idea of chopped steak based on the steak tartare created by the Russian Cossacks, it became known as “hamburger.” I became the international “go to” guy at the agency, adapting U.S. program resources to other countries and cultures for McDonald’s international marketing department. McDonald’s was opening up new countries rapidly, and the strategy of Tom Gruber, the international marketing VP, was to launch public relations tactics to cost effectively introduce the brand to new countries prior to beginning advertising.
Another area of increased focus for me became public policy. We were increasingly involved in the issues of nutrition, ecology, safety and minority affairs, and I worked on creating educational and legislative and media positions and materials for the client’s public affairs division.
In the late 70s, the company then brought in a more conservative, strategic leader, already an officer from the marketing department, to head communications. Ray Caruso had then successfully marketed McDonald’s then new breakfast menu in its initial rollout. He was less interested in publicity and traditional PR programs, than in issues management, and while he was successful in bringing that perspective and expertise to the fore, his approach was not positive and proactive enough for a high energy global consumer brand like McDonald’s. His deputy, Dick Starmann, also a former marketing officer, went on to head communications and restore a balance between positive proactive PR programs and issues management, and especially crisis management. His leadership style would prompt McDonald’s to make him the first senior management communications officer in the company’s history, and take the company’s strongly growing communications staff and its PR agencies successfully through the 80s and 90s, almost to the door of the Millennium.
Dick was a no-nonsense executive, a former Green Beret in Vietnam, and I made a personal mistake at the first account creative presentation we held for him at the agency’s Michigan Avenue conference room. I was presenting an update on an educational program on safety that we managed for local franchisees. The program used an animated human-sized robot called Officer Mac to give elementary school safety lectures. To introduce my update and break the ice, I’d programmed a small robot, called an Omnibot, from my home that I normally used to serve drinks to guests, to sit on the conference table and sing a somewhat off-color song, while wearing a Spanish policeman’s three-cornered hat. The robot sang out, “My name is Officer Mac. I make my living on my back. Etc, etc.” Dick didn’t crack a smile.
Dick later commented to my boss, Chuck Gelman, “I guess that’s what I should expect from your creative types.” Dick forgave my impetuousness, and he went on to become a great mentor and good friend.
The public service role of PR has often been under-played, but two important innovations in public service were the result of ideas we generated at Golin/Harris in the 70s. We would often send the company executives ideas we gleaned from the news media that we thought could have positive application in their business, even if the public relations value was limited. One of the best examples was in a memo I sent to the officers responsible for restaurant operations training in 1975. The memo attached news articles reporting that the American Medical Association had officially endorsed the “Heimlich Hug” technique for giving first aid to those choking on food. I wrote, “Perhaps this information…and appropriate ‘How To’ instructions should be operationally communicated to all restaurants as well as included in training for management and crews. The humanistic value of such life-saving techniques seems to be rather compelling.” Though the lawyers at first balked about liability issues, McDonald’s began saving customer lives soon after.
Seeing menus for the blind
Another first a few years later was creating a way to offer menus in brail nationally. We’d learned of a local McDonald’s that had their menu typed on a machine that could imprint brail letters on a heavy mat material. It was a franchisee’s idea to make McDonald’s more accessible to blind customers. We struggled with how to make this “best bet” more available to the U.S. System. After contact with some national organizations that serve the vision-impaired, we learned there was a new technology that would enable brail to be imprinted on a permanent piece of heavy plastic. After some experimentation, we figured out how to produce the basic McDonald’s menu, without prices, so it could last a while, on sturdy, cleanable plastic sheets and distribute them to every McDonald’s in the nation, along with instructions regarding identifying and serving vision-impaired customers. In one fell swoop, and for a budget of just over $8000, we’d made McDonald’s the first national restaurant chain to offer its menus in brail. That was a home run that went beyond conventional public relations to real innovation in public service.
The year 1978 was a very big and positive one for me, personally and professionally, despite a major conflict that arose between the two. On May 13th, I married my travel agent, Vicki, who was also the travel agent for the McDonald’s All-American Band and Basketball programs, as well as much of the other business travel coordinated by Golin/Harris. Under McDonald’s policies of that time, this created a conflict of interest for the agency, and me so she lost her largest commercial account. Vicki later confided to me, that after the dust had settled at her travel firm, it was a blessing in disguise, as our travel work was very time-intensive, and that the loss of the business freed up her staff’s time to serve more lucrative private travel clients.
Many of the guests at our Racquet Club wedding reception were friends and associates from the agency and client, and the wedding picture that has sat on my desk for years since, portrays us at our wedding dinner holding a McDonald’s French fry box. In fact, it was a prop, as rack of lamb was the entrée that night. Our next order of fries together was to be during our honeymoon trip, at the Champs Elysees McDonald’s in Paris. On return, we moved into a new apartment overlooking the lake and Lincoln Park Zoo, and bought our first new car, a yellow 240 series Mercedes diesel, a so-called doctor’s car because it was so basic, with the windows and even the sunroof opening with hand cranks. Vicki’s looming role in my world had calmed me down, and given me a new focus on the quality of living, rather than the speed of it. I was drinking less, sleeping better and putting things into more long-range perspective.
The other reason ’78 was important to me was my promotion to vice president of the agency and my addition to the creative review board and new business committees. Golin/Harris was rapidly becoming a major force among national PR agencies, and I was fortunate to be growing along with it. Ironically, another VP added to the account had been my client at Sears when I was with the Burson Marsteller agency. I was not happy with his addition and told my boss so, because I believed he was lazy and did not have many of the key communications skills needed. But his PR credentials with the Sears retail powerhouse, and his slick manner got him the job. In another irony, I found a way to get rid of him. When a Texas PR agency tried to recruit me for a senior position, I gave them his name, and he soon took the job, showing his total lack of loyalty to McDonald’s and Golin/Harris.
Not long after, I was approached by the chief marketing officer of McDonald’s arch rival and number two competitor, Burger King. He flew to Chicago and offered me the job as PR director of their Florida-based company. I turned him down flat. Less than two ears later, I was promoted to senior VP and co-account director on McDonald’s at Golin/Harris.
It wasn’t “fair”.
One of the biggest projects I’d had the chance to spearhead for McDonald’s also became the largest project we ever cancelled. Long-time McDonald’s franchisee in Knoxville, Lytton Cochran, was elected a director for what would become the 1980 Knoxville World’s Fair. Before the age of the Internet made them largely obsolete, world’s fairs were global expositions of technology, trade and tourism that rivaled and even exceeded the draw of the Olympics. Cochran was a good friend with Fred Turner, now Ray Kroc’s successor as McDonald’s Chairman, and he prevailed on Fred to think about creating a McDonald’s-sponsored pavilion at the fair.
Fred called Al, and we put together a feasibility team that I headed. We researched previous such fairs, flew in and out of Knoxville to meet with fair officials, and brainstormed endlessly about ideas that could advance McDonald’s reputation and justify a multi-million dollar investment in special staff, construction and a year of operations a the fair, not to mention global publicity efforts. We hired a talented account person, Bridget, to head up development and execution of the Olympics program. We brought in top graphics and exhibits people. The pavilion theme we settled on was one that we could promote globally. It would focus on fitness, including exercise and good nutrition. It seemed like a natural. We also envisioned creating a local Ronald McDonald’s House in Knoxville, which would open the same year as the fair.
Fred Turner and his people were thrilled with the concept we proposed. Then we ran into a wall we just couldn’t get over. When we further analyzed the projected attendance of the fair, and where visitors would travel from, we realized that their projections we exaggerated and unreliable. We concluded there was no way our projected expenditure would justify the likely attendance. The client had already invested $50,000 in unrecoverable planning for the fair pavilion design and program.
I went to Al and Chuck with Bridget and said we just couldn’t justify letting McDonald’s go ahead with the fair. It came to us to call a meeting with McDonald’s Chairman Turner to recommend we cancel the project and eat our losses. He agreed, and thanked us for our sincere efforts and candid evaluation. Bridget, rather than seeing her new job evaporate, had proven her worth, and went on to excel on the McDonald’s account. In fact, I was to hire her to come to work at the company as PR Manager not long after I joined it myself in 1985, and today she is senior VP and chief communications officer for McDonald’s worldwide.
The end of the 70s also saw us roll out McDonald’s first corporate film, highlighting the entrepreneurial spirit of Ray Kroc and his franchisees. We conceived and worked on production of the half-hour film, hosted by TV star Jack Klugman.
The agency partner and executive vice president who headed the McDonald’s account, Chuck Gelman, together with his wife Gay, had become great good friends with Vicki and I. It was they who had urged us to go ahead and get married. We often dined together, and traveled to Spain and Italy together on vacation. Back at the office at 500 North Michigan Avenue, across from the Tribune, when the client had us rattled, which was fairly often, Chuck and I would sneak around the corner to chat and down a few “Stolies” over ice for lunch. On such days, when we returned to the office, we’d usually close our office doors and settle into some quiet copy editing or speech writing, which seemed to go swimmingly after a few beverages.
One of the greatest contemporary conceptual innovations in modern public relations was the product of one such after-lunch reverie by Chuck Gelman. While Al Golin (see his 2003 book, “Trust or Consequences”) had pioneered the concept with Ray Kroc, Chuck came up with a name for it: the “McDonald’s Trust Bank,” which explained the rationale behind much that we did for this client. The idea is that every positive PR program and demonstration of corporate responsibility puts deposits in a figurative “Trust Bank” which builds the organization’s good reputation, and gives it some reputational resilience in times of challenge, when withdrawals of trust are possible. Al Golin gets the credit as the creator of the “Trust Bank” concept, because he put the strategy behind it in place, but it was my friend and close associate Chuck who gave it the articulation that is taught in schools to this day.
While I sat on the agency’s new business committee and would often prepare McDonald’s case history success stories or otherwise advise and confer on new business proposals, it was not until 1980 that I took the lead on a new business proposal for another big potential client. The opportunity that caught my imagination was a request for proposal from the Pet Food Institute, an organization of the major pet food manufacturers. Their premise was that pet ownership – mostly dogs and cats – was slipping in the U.S. and this was projected to have negative consequences for pet food sales. Increased urbanization meant more potential pet owners faced restrictive apartment covenants, and people just were not appreciating the social value of pets in their modern, demanding lives. The institute wanted a long-term program that would bring back American passion for pets and thus re-accelerate pet ownership.
I was intrigued by the possibilities. I had grown up with dogs, mostly Kerry blue terriers, and we had recently moved into a high-rise apartment across from the Lincoln Park Zoo. We could hear the animals roar when we got up in the morning, but at a recent condo board meeting, we heard residents argue for a restriction of pet ownership in our building. I passionately believed the pets deserved an advocate. The project to get the account was turned over to me, on condition that I continued to meet my personal responsibilities for McDonald’s.
But since I was committed to remain working full-time on McDonald’s, we recruited Rich, a senior VP who was moving off the McDonald’s account and Sarah, an account supervisor to act as the core team, while we brought in more than 10 other account staff across the agency to help with research and creative development. We conducted original focus groups, and consulted with veterinarians, psychologists and others with animal experience. We wanted to develop a strong program theme, and in an intense creative session, Sarah had a break-through idea. We would call our proposal the Pets Are Wonderful program – with the acronym PAW.
I spoke with author Alvin Toffler, who the Financial Times had dubbed “the world’s most famous futurologist,” about the importance of pets in modern society, and he validated what became a key concept to help build and sell our campaign. He said, in a “high tech” society that would become increasingly dominated by de-humanizing computers, there would be an increasing need for balancing “high touch” components to feed our emotional selves. “Would pets bring in that “high touch” aspect, I asked. “Indeed they would,” was his prophetic reply. That was the formula we were looking for: pet ownership would be an important balancing dimension in the “high tech/high touch” society of the future. A multi-faceted campaign was planned in detail, against a requested annual budget of $500,000.
When we made our presentation to the institute members, in direct competition with three of the largest PR firms in the business, they loved our PAW concept and ideas and proposal. They awarded the account to Golin/Harris, but then asked to double the budget to a million dollars a year, as a starting point. It was the largest new business, competitive account win the agency had ever had, and Al and Tom Harris, his partner, credited me with “having masterminded the entire effort.” Tom wrote about the campaign in his 1991 book, “The Marketer’s Guide to Public Relations.”
A few weeks later, as Vicki and I was preparing to leave on a much-needed European vacation with Chuck and Gay Gelman, Al and Tom called me into their office to thank me again for squeezing time from my work with McDonald’s to head the PAW project. They handed me five crisp new hundred-dollar bills and wished us happy landings on our trip. I put the office out of my mind for the next week of travel through southern Italy.
When I returned, after thinking about it some more, I went to Chuck Gelman and told him I didn’t understand the math. I had “masterminded” a new account that would begin billing at a million dollars a year, with the potential to grow and go on for many years, and my reward was a nice mention in the agency newsletter and $500. I said it just didn’t compute. I pointed out that several of the staff that assisted in the new business pitch would now work on the account and each draw annual salaries of much more than 100 times my little one-time bonus, not to mention the incremental profit to the agency.
Chuck soon came back to me with a $5000 salary raise. Not exactly homerun remuneration in my book. I had long thought the agency didn’t fully recognize my worth, despite my many promotions. By this time I’d been working on the McDonald’s account for seven years, with no near-term prospects for another big advance. My good friend Chuck, by then an executive vice president and partner, who headed the account, didn’t seem likely to be going anywhere soon, so I didn’t foresee any new growth and promotion potential for me on the horizon at Golin/Harris.
In early 1981, Ray Kroc was experiencing more frequent illnesses, and Ed Schmitt, then U.S. McDonald’s president, called in Al and asked him to have the agency prepare some contingency plans in event of Kroc’s death, as his own iconic status as a business pioneer had taken on the significance of a Henry Ford or Thomas Edison. I possessed a unique credential in such planning, as one of my last military assignments in the late 60s had been to maintain the Army’s contingency plan for the death of President/General of the Army Dwight Eisenhower. When the President died, I implemented the plan for the Kansas phase of the Eisenhower services, and served a briefing officer to the Army Commander. The confidential “Schmitt Plan” I developed for Kroc included family coordination, a notification plan with stockpiled, ready-to-finalize memos, press releases, memorial ads, videotape and photography. When Kroc died, three years later, after I had left the agency, Al called Fred Turner to discuss next steps, and in one poignant directive, Fred directed Al, “Implement the Schmitt plan.”
Later in 1981, my old friend, graphic design wiz Hank Robertz, who I’d known since my Toyota days, and who’d introduced me to Carl Kay at the Golin agency, told me another client of his, Baxter Laboratories in Deerfield, was looking for a communications director at their corporate headquarters. Hank had designed all of McDonald’s reports to shareholders, and as I helped create these, I’d gotten to know and trust him through countless late-night hours working alongside he and his staff in his studios and at printers. I met with Baxter.
I couldn’t play one employer against another
I thought long and hard when Baxter, a Fortune 500 health care technology leader, offered me the job. It turned out they valued my broad, high profile consumer PR experience, which was largely missing in their business-to-business marketing and communications organization. It was not only a significant salary increase, with excellent bonus potential, stock options and executive benefits, but it represented another opportunity for me to break through. I would be moving back into the corporate world as a member of senior management, where decisions get made and budgets created, and agencies hired. I’d be testing myself in the prestigious high tech health field – going from healthy food to health care, so to speak. I took the job.
One of my most difficult tasks was breaking the news to my direct superior and good friend, Chuck Gelman, who had been a mentor for me at the agency. He wanted to go to Al and develop a counter-offer, but I said no, it was time for me to move on.
Little did I think then, that three years later, when I’d done all I could at Baxter, and found myself reporting to an attorney with no imagination, that my old client Dick Starmann would offer me the job of home office director of corporate communications for McDonald’s. I’d have the public relations, media relations and internal communications departments of this industry leader reporting to me, along with the team at Golin/Harris and our other PR consultants. At the same time, I received a six-figure offer, my first at that level, to serve as VP of PR for a $12 billion food manufacturing company. Al Golin also offered my old job back at the agency. Al was the all-time ultimate McDonald’s PR guru, and I held him in the highest personal regard, as I do today, but he wasn’t in a position to offer me the wider palette of responsibilities I sought.
But I didn’t know the people, except by reputation, at the manufacturing company, and the agency wasn’t offering anything new. McDonald’s Corporation though, was offering me a wide canvas to work on, where I could build on my previous agency achievements. I knew, respected and personally liked scores of the McDonald’s people, from the very top to bottom. Now some of them, like talented and personable PR director Mike Gordon, who became a great friend, would even be reporting to me. As McDonald’s CEO Fred Turner sat on the Baxter board of directors, Dick Starmann had to ask him if it would be OK to hire me. He said yes. I knew McDonald’s to be an honest, ethical company, and even though I would not be an officer at the outset, I would still be near the top of PR decision-making, and even though the starting compensation was a little lower than what I was already making and being offered by others, the job did come with a company car, and so, I went with my instincts.
I would lead corporate communications for McDonald’s for the next 15 years, growing with the company as it became a Dow Jones Industrial stock and one of the world’s most-admired brands. I worked as a confidant to several Chairmen, CEOs, CFOs, CMOs and the Board, and retired at the very cusp of the Millennium as a vice president and chief corporate spokesman for brand McDonald’s. It had been a dream career topper with an organization I loved and respected, starting as an agency account executive, and rising to become one of the home office’s 30-some officers at the top of this 1.5 million-person McDonald’s family.
My odyssey with McDonaldland and into the thick of the 1970s Chicago PR agency world began with the sinking of my beloved Chris-Craft.
While my boat and prior life had gone down the figurative drain in a storm, by mid-decade my dreams began to set sail once more, both for a rewarding personal life and for building public relationships on behalf of what would become one of the biggest and most-respected ships of state in the universe of global corporations.
As the 1980’s were dawning, Vicki and I purchased a half interest in a little sailboat called the Mai Tai, just a few moorings away from the anchorage where the CHASE’s untimely end had sent me ashore nearly a decade before. Allegorically, I’d had to swim for my life in the frothy sea of the 1970s Chicago PR agency world, but the water had been warm, the sharks had been beaten back, and I’d learned how to stay afloat in an even larger pond.
When I was about to turn 40 in 1983, I told Vicki I felt awkward about such a mid-life milestone and wanted to be as far away from everyone as possible. So, for my birthday, we traveled to the village of Baden Baden, deep in the Black Forest of Germany.
When we entered our room at the famous Brenner’s Park Hotel and Spa in the remote casino resort town, having flown and then driven thousands of miles from home, I was surprised to find a table loaded with gifts, cards and wine from friends, associates and relatives back home, whom Vicki had tipped-off as to our vacation plans. It came to me then that I was having no success in hiding out from my world at this ominous birthday.
Instead, as I opened those presents, I was also opening a new chapter in my own life and in my career as what I call a PR-kitect, or builder of public relationships. Now, as I write this memoir a third of a century later, I’m seeing the transition that came to define my 30s with both the crisp clarity of hindsight, and a sense that there is much more story to tell, including my experiences building a fresh new public platform for health technology giant Baxter International, followed by 15 intense years leading McDonald’s corporate communications, behind and in front of the scenes inside of a global organization whose chief spokesperson has traditionally been a clown.
Going back to where I began this tale of my decade afloat in the agency whirl of 1970’s Chicago, there would be some other real boats to allegorically “float” me through my later career and life beyond — although never nearly enough boats — but only one called the CHASE, who’s timely sinking so neatly launched my McCareer, and whose name characterized a decade that that didn’t just float by – it flew.
The 1980’s and 90’s were to become the culmination of my working career, shaping communications strategies at the beating heart of giant corporations, building relationships and protecting reputation in response to soaring opportunities and deep challenges. It was to be the run-up to my opportunistic retirement from the business world at age 56, at the stroke of the Millennium, ringing in a second youth of freedom and learning. The fun had just began.

March 2023

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