Aflac emerges from crisis and controversy to find new voice

Aflac's in-house team had to control both the Japan and the duck stories, while also finding a new voice for its iconic character.

Client: Aflac (Columbus, GA)
PR agencies: PainePR (Los Angeles); Kaplan Thaler Group (New York); and Digitas (Boston)
Campaign:Aflac Turns a Black Eye into a Beauty Mark
Duration:March 11-April 28
Budget:About $150,000

Supplemental insurance provider Aflac was dealt concurrent blows in early March. First, the March 11 tsunami hit Japan, which represents 75% of Aflac's revenue. Then comedian Gilbert Gottfried, the voice of Aflac's duck, tweeted offensive remarks about Japan. Ties were severed with him on March 14, leaving Aflac without its duck - a primary asset that's integral to brand identity.

Compounding matters, Aflac's in-house team of three was in the middle of an agency review. PainePR had pitched on March 8, but after Aflac's issues arose, the firm's managing partner Chris Chamberlin offered to help - without a contract. Corporate communications VP Laura Kane and corporate communications manager Jon Sullivan accepted.

The team had to control both the Japan and the duck stories, while also finding a new voice for its iconic character.

"Our commercials weren't on air - we needed a duck fast," Kane says. "We posted on and positioned it as the best job in America. We didn't want anyone to think it was a publicity stunt. We truly had a business need."

Chamberlin says casting a nationwide net for candidates helped change the story from "Gottfried versus Aflac" angles.

Media relations, social media outreach,, and drove messaging.

Kaplan Thaler Group, creator of the duck concept, handled audition logistics. Digital AOR Digitas built and oversaw social networks.

On March 11, Aflac CEO Daniel Amos pledged 100 million yen to disaster relief and conducted interviews before flying to Tokyo to continue talking to media. Employees bought and sold unity bracelets to raise more money. Condolences and updates were posted on, Facebook, and Twitter.

A March 14 press release announced a national casting call, and details of online and live auditions were released March 24. Media were given full access to live auditions. was built to house the job description and accept audition videos.

The team was inundated with calls, emails, and audition videos, which media couldn't be given directly without Aflac incurring rights fees from the Screen Ac-tors Guild. Outlets got lists and links to YouTube instead.

Monitoring social media buzz allowed the team to drive many stories, including one about Cincinnati Bengals player Dhani Jones wanting to audition.

Minnesota salesman Dan McKeague was chosen as the new duck voice. Chamberlin went to McKeague's house under the guise of media training on April 26 to film his reaction to a call from Amos offering him the job. The video was posted online and sent to media. Two days of press conferences were held in New York.

Nearly 12,500 people auditioned. got 250,000-plus visits. traffic rose 20% in March 2011 compared to March 2010. YouTube channel views exceeded 225,000.

Sullivan reports Q1 2011 sales rose for the first time in more than nine quarters. Compared to March and April 2010, direct sales leads were up 80%. In addition, Aflac's staff raised $250,000.

The initiative garnered 70,000 stories in outlets including CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and TMZ. It also won a bronze award at the Cannes Lions Festival.

PainePR officially won Aflac's corporate communications business. The team is promoting work in Japan and preparing for an upcoming pediatric cancer campaign.

PRWeek's View
Kudos to PainePR for offering to help without a contract and to Aflac for accepting. The team did a fantastic job working together, acting quickly and decisively, and staying calmly focused on objectives. Taking positive actions and making those actions visible effectively controlled the Japan story and turned the duck crisis into a win. Chamberlin credits Aflac for not engaging Gottfried defenders, while Sullivan says knowing that the decision to let him go was right for the company made it easier to stay focused on reframing the story.

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