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SPOKE SMOKE

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.

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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.

 

 

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Well, it’s been 50 years that I’ve served as a spokesperson for various organizations, including some of the largest and best-known in the world. I’ll be telling that story when I present a new essay called “Spoke Smoke,” at the Chicago Literary Club in later January. Here’s a small excerpt.

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 stuff. 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 to be more helpful to those news media people who were friendlier to the government’s version of the war effort’s progress. Our government had an agenda, and press officers as spokespeople were obliged to support that agenda. The truth for us was the truth that political leadership wanted it to be. Like lawyers, our loyalty was to our client’s interest, within the limits of the law. I was lucky enough to come home early 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.”

Positive PR

Bradley student Shelby Brown learns self-defense techniques at an event organized by Bradley public relations seniors. (Photo provided by Kris Parks, Kuk Sool Won of Pekin)

December 6, 2016

Bradley public relations seniors find creative ways to improve the Peoria metro area each year through a friendly final project competition. Through the Ebeling PR-ize, students build relationships with local businesses and nonprofits in effort to improve the lives of local residents.

Founded by retired McDonald’s communications executive Chuck Ebeling ’66, the senior capstone challenges students to address worthy causes in the community with help from local organizations.

“This takes every class we ever took and threw it into one project,” said Kayley Koter, of Des Plaines, Illinois. “It’s a big deal because this is real life. It affects real people.”

Fall 2016 capstones targeted safety and financial concerns. One group paired area martial arts school Kuk Sool Won with the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Peoria to encourage and empower girls and young women. Another campaign paired Peoria education nonprofit Common Place with an area Mass Mutual office to promote financial basics. A third campaign promoted safe neighborhoods by passing out LED porch lights and hosting a block party with help from Ameren Illinois, Peoria Police Explorers and community advocacy organization South Side Community United for Change.

The experience pushed students outside their comfort zones as they took time to understand life and concerns of Peoria metro area residents.

“It’s good that we’re forced to get to know the city,” said Madeleine Koenig-Schappe, of Columbia, Missouri. “As we met people, we realized there were many important issues we could work on. Once we picked one, it was good to see the impact we could make, even though it was just a semester project.”

Students formed teams and functioned as full-service PR agencies for the semester. They followed the traditional PR campaign planning process from initial research to post-event analysis. Because of the small teams, students touched all elements of PR, with its marketing, advertising, event planning and business applications.

For many participants, the Ebeling competition was an introduction to nonprofit work. Though they may have volunteered for community service projects at Peoria-area organizations throughout their Bradley years, classroom and internship experiences focused on corporate PR.

As a result, the semester opened new career possibilities for people like Koter, whose group worked with Common Place.

“It was heartwarming and eye-opening to see the impact of organizations we worked with,” Koter said. “I hadn’t considered working in the nonprofit world before, but this is something I could see myself doing.”

The Ebeling PR-ize has recognized the top PR campaigns each since 2004. Previous winning teams include Hope Grandon ’11, whose competition success helped her land at the Denver Art Museum, where her team won a 2014 Silver Anvil — the top award from the Public Relations Society of America. Other past Ebeling campaigns included a voter drive and a community-building day of remembrance a year after a tornado devastated nearby Washington, Illinois.

“You’re going to have a hand up on many other graduates because of opportunity like this,” said Koenig-Schappe. “It’s really enriching to learn how to do a project in real time, with real people that produces real results.”


A journalist friend: Everyone has biases, but reporters and editors are supposed to check that at the door when they do their jobs. As a journalist, I am embarrassed by the actions, statements, editorializing etc. Of the mainstream news media. There has been a complete double standard of coverage on this president vs. The last one. The last one could do no wrong in the media’s eyes and the current one can do nothing right. That is a problem.
Comment from another friend:. Chuck needs more friends like you
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Charles Ebeling
Charles Ebeling (Journalist above) is a friend, but we disagree. My long career in PR taught me that every media person has a personal bias. Some overcome that, and some don’t, and some use it as a moral compass for their journalism. Most are a bit of all three, to varying extents. I happen to agree with the weight of the current mainstream media regarding Trump, not because of their bias, but because of my own.

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.

Bring on the Clown

Learn about PR from the man whose hair, ego, and finances are all about puffery.

Donald Trump

CEO, the Trump Organization
New York City
October 24, 2004

It’s hard to tell if Donald Trump truly is a ruthless, self-serving billionaire with a weakness for Ottoman decor, or if he just plays one on TV. Either way, one thing’s certain: Nobody beats Trump at PR.

So it was that, at the behest of his front man Howard Rubenstein — the closest thing public relations has to Vito Corleone — Trump found time one recent Sunday to school 4,100 PR pros in the art of self-promotion at the Public Relations Society of America’s fall conference.

Accompanied by his now-standard royal trumpet fanfare, Trump trotted out his usual Darwinian script on how to make it big in business: Always hit back, only harder; don’t trust anyone, especially loved ones; and never underestimate the power of a good prenup.

But that’s not why Trump was addressing the flacking masses. He is himself the king of hype, with a genius for winning attention for Donald Trump and thus the Trump Empire. Why that is became clear in a streak of mean-spirited, profanity-laced, misogynistic asides that, true to form, melted everyone’s heart.

LESSON ONE: DISH DIRT, LIBERALLY.

Mid-riff on humility, of all things, Trump got big yucks for this digression: “I was walking down the street with a very young and beautiful woman named Marla. Did anyone ever hear of Marla? I have. Trust me, it cost me a fortune. It wasn’t worth it.” Trump isn’t above dissing himself, either, if it will score him a few points for color. “I think I get terrible press,” he observed. “If there’s half a sentence that says ‘his hair is terrible’ or ‘he looks like s — t,’ I take it very personally.”

LESSON TWO: KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID.

Part of Trump’s PR power is his black-and-white view of the universe. He hews to a simple character narrative of brash-businessman-with-a-big-ego that makes even SpongeBob SquarePants appear complex. “All my life I’ve been successful,” he began. “All my life.” When it comes to business, Donald is always, always doing “great,” despite an occasionally contrary opinion from his accountants in Atlantic City.

LESSON THREE: THE EXPLETIVE IS MIGHTIER THAN THE IDEA.

Trump regaled the crowd with his savvy strategy for managing headlines when the media thought his real estate empire would collapse in the late 1980s. “I said to the press [long pause], ‘F — k you!’ “

LESSON FOUR: SEX SELLS. MENTION SEX. A LOT.

Trump knows that settling into a stable relationship would make his PR hits drop faster than the fat diamond he just gave new fiancee Melania Knauss. In the course of a 30-minute address, he managed to make at least 15 references to women and/or the woes of marriage.

The look, the ego, the swearing, the sex. Crass, sure — but in that way, brilliant. He nailed his message, and he won 4,100 fans. It was all part of Trump’s signature (and carefully copyrighted) strategy: not just style over substance, but style as substance. Sadly, it works like a charm.

Sure, I want the Presidency to serve our nation well. Maybe Trump as President is not the same man we saw before his election. Maybe he’s not the same man I witnessed a decade ago when he verbally demeaned the news media while also demeaning  a large audience comprised substantially of professional women. Maybe he’s not the same man I watched announce his candidacy by calling Mexicans rapists, and calling for a wall with Mexico and the removal of 11 million people living in this country. Maybe he’s not the same man who called for barring Muslims from the U.S. Maybe he’s not the same man who invited Russian intelligence to undermine the U.S. election. Maybe he’s not the same man who said other countries ought to have the atom bomb, and that the hard-won multi-national anti-nuclear agreement with Iran should be torn up.

Maybe he’s not the same man…

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.

 

BREAKFAST WITH MR. MCDONALD

 

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 findagrave.com. 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.

 

“Earned Media” is one of the most-used expressions in the world of public relations. It refers to the media coverage given to an issue, person, product or brand that is covered as news because of its potential appeal to readers, viewers or listeners, and not because it was paid for by an advertiser. Earned Media is free media coverage as opposed to paid media coverage.

Back when I was doing public relations work for corporations and not-for-profits, we would take pride when the quality of our messages and messengers on behalf of these clients would be perceived by the news media or worthy of coverage as news for their audiences. Our PR agencies or departments would receive praise and great credit from management for “Earning” such free media coverage based upon the merits and creativity of the messages we crafted. Such “earned media” coverage was usually seen as more credible and thus more valuable than messages we purchased as advertising. Though we could precisely choose how to phrase and present our own messages in advertising, it was seen as much more valuable when such messages were communicated through credible news people, who supposedly selected what to cover as “news” based upon its editorial   worthiness and suitability to their target audiences.

But in today’s news, when “infotainment” is the new norm in so-called news coverage, and entertainment value trumps (pardon the expression) real news content, it is increasingly embarrassing to professional communicators to see gratuitous coverage of political foolishness passed off as “earned media.” The public relations profession either needs a new term for real news that  “earns” its place in news coverage versus advertising, or else infotainment that tries to pass for “earned Media” should perhaps just be called what it is — “Goofy Media!”.

July 2018
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