Aflac Turns PR Lemons into Lemonade

The Moment We Dread…

Aflac makes PR lemonadeMost anyone in marketing knows the sickening feeling of a marketing screw-up. Whether it’s a typo on a billboard or an inappropriate tweet by an employee, the realization that “this must be fixed” gets the flight or flight reflexes working in high gear.

So imagine how the execs at Aflac felt when they learned the voice of their beloved Aflac duck, Gilbert Gottfried, had tweeted this in response to the earthquake and tsumani in Japan on March 11, 2011: “I just split up with my girlfriend, but like the Japanese say, ‘They’ll be another one floating by any minute now.

On no, here we go…

Rouge Spokesperson Alert

Having a third-party spokesperson is an inherent risk for any brand, especially a high-profile company. People are people, and they can’t be controlled. Sometime, in their human-ness, spokespeople forget the brand they represent and simply show themselves.

I’m sure Aflac was aware of Gottfried’s irreverent style when he was hired to voice the Aflac duck 11 years ago. But the company was smaller and having a well-known comedian voice their brand would have been seen as major win for their marketing team.

If they were smart (and I would guess they were) Aflac covered their bases with stipulations in the contract governing appropriate behavior befitting the conservative brand. Certainly Gottfried was a calculated risk, but one the company willingly took, until…

Values Diverged

When Gottfried’s tweets were posted following the earthquake, Aflac was quick to recognize the contrast between their corporate values and Gottfried’s perspective.

Aflac could have waffled, trying to cover up the crisis or downplaying the impact of the comments. Instead, they made the best choice, acting swiftly and decisively to protect their brand.

Crisis Communications

On 3/11, before Gottfried’s tweets, Aflac immediately responded to the Japan crisis. With a significant market presence in the country, Aflac communicated their commitment to disaster relief right away, pledging 100 million yen to aid Red Cross efforts in Japan.

Having already established their support for the victims of the crisis in Japan made the distinction between Gottfried’s comments and Aflac more dramatic. While Aflac could not have known what was coming, their proactive approach to PR created a good foundation for responding to the wave of unflattering coverage Gottfried created.

Swift Action

Aflac announced on 3/14 that Gottfried had been fired, communicating in a single press release both the termination of their spokesperson and the upcoming search for a new voice.

To clearly distance themselves from Gottfried, Aflac Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Michael Zuna remarked, “Gilbert’s recent comments about the crisis in Japan were lacking in humor and certainly do not represent the thoughts and feelings of anyone at Aflac.”

Forward Motion

The announcement of Gottfried’s termination caused quite a stir in media circles, and Aflac drew fire from some for the action. Undeterred, Aflac moved forward quickly to create positive press, announcing two days later that they have been named a World’s Most Ethical Company for the 5th year in a row.

Ten days after the initial announcement, details of the casting call to replace Gottfried were unveiled. Rather than seeking another celebrity, Aflac opened its search to anyone and everyone via the internet, creating a dedicated website, for submissions, and leveraging social media channels to promote the contest.

Big Duck Boots

While the casting call proved to be a media boon for Aflac, it also created a significant risk for failure. In the years that Gottfried voiced the duck, Aflac reported that 52 tv and radio ads helped “increase the company’s brand recognition from slightly more than 10 percent to an amazing 93 percent.”

The new spokesperson needed the ability to maintain that awareness while shoring up the positive perceptions of the brand. From 93 percent recognition, some might say there’s nowhere to go but down.

Whoever the company selected would have very big shoes to fill.

The Duck Gets His Quack Back

Aflac announced the new voice of their duck on April 26, straight from middle America. Found in Hugo, MN (a suburb of Minneapolis), Daniel McKeague is a radio station ad sales manager with local voice-over experience and a clean-cut image.

Some people might be surprised that company chose an unknown for this position, but I say it’s another step in a string of smart PR moves.

Assuming there are no skeletons in McKeague’s proverbial closet, he’s a safe bet and a far cry from the controversial Gottfried. I would bet that Aflac has thoroughly vetted their choice to insure future embarrassment is an unlikely event.

Time will tell, but I expect that the media stir around McKeague’s selection will soon overshadow Gottfried’s mistakes, creating an (almost) clean slate for Aflac.

What Aflac Did Right

Here’s a quick recap of things Aflac did well in handling what could have been a huge PR disaster. Lessons learned for any business include:

  • Act Quickly. Decisive action shows strength and conviction
  • Confront the Issue. Don’t hide, face your problem head on, armed with facts, not fluff.
  • Be Clear. Simple, concise statements will play better than long, drawn out explanations.
  • No Excuses. An apology may be in order, but don’t try to make excuses. Simply say, “we’re sorry.”
  • Add Distance. Disassociate yourselves and create space between your company and the problem.
  • Focus on the Positive. Show what you are doing right, even if it seems unrelated to the issue.
  • Recover Gracefully. Create and communicate a logical, achievable recovery plan.
  • Forge Ahead. The public and media won’t move ahead until you do. Let it go and move on.

Images resources from Emre Nacigil and Cormac Scanlan.

P.S. My #usguys pal Ric Dragon planted the seed for this post by commenting on a tweet of mine this morning. Thanks Ric!

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  1. I’m going to go out on a limb here, and even suggest that in what COULD have been a PR fiasco, AFLAC didn’t even lose ANYTHING. Their reputation wasn’t hurt – because they were quick on their feet in distancing themselves from Gottfried’s joke. They did lose Gottfried’s voice – but if the AFLAC advertising campaign of the past decade is studied, it’s not really that voice that make them so powerful – but a full creative concept. The voice was a part of it – but in the end, easily replaced.

    What’s cool here, for me, is not only did AFLAC NOT lose anything, but they got a LOT of great free press. As for the 100 million Yen, keep in mind that AFLAC and Japan have a special relationship – AFLAC is the number 1 insurance company in Japan in terms of individual policies in force.

    1. Hi Ric, thanks for the comment. You are so right about the overall campaign. Some people might even say it was time for Gottfried to go. 11 years is a LONG time. And the campaign was built by Aflac’s agency and marketing teams, not Gottfried.

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