The VP of corporate communications at insurance giant Aflac turns a potential crisis into a moment of PR inspiration, with help from the firm's feathered friend.
Within an hour of speaking to a local reporter, Aflac's VP of corporate communications Laura Kane had set a plan in motion to face one of the biggest PR crises in the insurance provider's history.
On March 14, 2011, three days after a tsunami devastated Japan, where the company generates 75% of its revenue, a reporter requested a comment on insensitive tweets about the country made by comedian Gilbert Gottfried, voice of the Aflac duck.
The duck had become one of the company's greatest and most-beloved assets, so a mistake by the spokesperson pushed Aflac's reputation onto shaky ground, says Kane.
She asked the reporter to wait one hour before publishing the story. In the meantime, she helped write a press release explaining Aflac's decision to fire Gottfried. The release also said the firm planned to conduct a nationwide search for a new voice of the duck, an idea born during Kane's quick meeting to determine the company's response.
Aflac, VP of corporate communications; previously second VP of external comms
Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, SVP of communications
Euro RSCG, account director
Nordenson Lynn advertising, VP of account services
Sunquest Information Systems, director of marketing communications
ABC, director of multimedia; previously director of international operations
WNYC, director of leased time marketing
"We realized we had hit on something because our CEO went to the grocery store and his cashier auditioned," Kane says. "Meanwhile, our CMO was getting strange phone calls, where people were calling and quacking at him."
The next month, after six live auditions and more than 12,000 quacks, Aflac selected Minnesota salesman Dan McKeague as the new voice of the duck. Thanks to the campaign, Web traffic increased by 20% in March 2011 compared to March 2010 and first quarter 2011 sales rose for the first time in more than nine quarters. The campaign generated 70,000 stories and won a bronze award at the Cannes Lions Festival. Kane and her team were able to turn a PR controversy into an opportunity.Creative insight
Such foresight and boldness have characterized Kane's tenure at Aflac, says CEO Dan Amos. Leading a public relations team of just four people, she has helped transform an insurance company - and its feathered friend - into a household name.
"There's proactive and reactive, and [Kane] is the former," Amos says.
"She's not afraid to slug it out in the trenches when she feels that what she's doing is in the best interest of the company."
Kane worked in TV, advertising, and tech startups before starting a career in PR. Prior to joining Aflac, she was SVP of communications at the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce for two years, where she bolstered the organization's internal communications capabilities, says president Sam Williams.
"She helped us go through the transition from just working with outside agencies who might not have understood us too well, to having someone in-house who could fine-tune our message to become independently effective," Williams adds.
When Aflac hired Kane to lead its corporate communications in February 2003, the company had little name recognition, and the duck "was just coming on the scene," says Kane.
"I believed from a PR perspective there were a lot of things we could do with the duck," she explains. At the start, Kane and her team used a mix of traditional and guerrilla PR tactics to raise brand awareness.
In 2004, before the 76th Academy Awards, they sent six plush ducks wearing bowties and dark sunglasses to ABC's Live! with Regis and Kelly show when actor Ben Affleck was scheduled as a guest host. The enclosed note read, "At least one Aflac will be on the Oscars this year." During the show, Regis Philbin brought out one of the ducks and showed it to Affleck, and the bird remained on-air for the rest of the segment.
"Those tactics were fun and they made the discussion a little lighter," Kane says.
"We found that people will engage with the duck, but as soon as you start talking about insurance you put up a wall. It enabled us to bridge what was going on at Aflac."
Over time, the duck and the company's image have evolved. In 2008, Aflac became the first publicly traded company to give shareholders a vote on executive compensation. With a resounding vote of confidence, 93% of shareholders approved of Amos' $11.96 million compensation package. Kane spearheaded external communications for the vote, which boosted Aflac's reputation as a transparent company.
"It was very controversial because CEO compensation is an emotional subject. We got a lot of media attention, and it was great for our reputation," she says.
Lost in translation
The Aflac duck gets a lot of laughs in the US, but in Japan, where the insurance provider generates 75% of its revenue, the joke didn't translate so well to the Asian audience.
In English, the sound a duck makes is "quack," which rhymes with Aflac. But in Japan, ducks make the sound "gaa gaa." At first, Aflac's CEO tried to explain the connection between the duck and the company's name during visits to Japan, but eventually he had to give up on the idea and simply told people the organization chose the duck because it was cute, Kane explains.
In Aflac's current Japanese commercials, the duck is accompanied by a maneki-neko cat, a popular Japanese character that is supposed to bring good fortune. As they dance together in the TV spots, the two animals appear to be the best of friends.
Kane's involvement with the say-on-pay issue demonstrates the value the company's leadership places on PR and communications. She reports to deputy CFO Ken Janke, and Amos also seeks input from her.
"Our CEO is probably one of the most open people, and he loves marcomms. I always feel like I am heard," Kane adds.
As a small team, Kane and her colleagues are forced to wear many hats. They collaborate closely with other internal departments, such as marketing, advertising, human resources, and digital; agencies Fleishman-Hillard and Citizen Paine; and Aflac's communications group in Japan.
Kane's team spends most of its time on media relations, but that practice has changed with the rising influence of social media and bloggers. "Social is one of our biggest challenges. It's clearly here to stay, but it's more of a consumer play than a b-to-b play," she says.Duck tales
The Aflac duck - whose popularity has increased through its own Facebook and Twitter accounts - has also become a symbol for the firm's philanthropic commitment to fighting pediatric cancer. Engaging people through this cause will be one of Kane's primary plans in the coming year.
In October, Aflac held a virtual rubber duck race to raise funds and the company has also raised money through Facebook's causes app. Every year during the holiday season Aflac partners with Macy's to sell stuffed ducks, with proceeds going toward the cause. This year for the holidays, a Pinterest board is being created for the duck.
Aflac's messaging will also evolve with healthcare reform in the US and the volatile global economy. Following the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act, Aflac is still trying to determine how that will affect the company's position.
"Our key point now is that no matter who your provider is, they will not pay for things such as mortgage, groceries, and other bills when you're sick or hurt, and that is where Aflac comes in," explains Kane.
Kane's approach to such challenges is best summed up in her response to the Japan tsunami. After the disaster, Aflac debated whether to talk about its business in the country before it received more information.
"We decided we needed to go out there and tell people what we knew as of that moment. We're glad we made that decision to be proactive as we heard other companies weren't saying anything," she explains.
Her biggest lessons from that turbulent time? "Be decisive and stick to your convictions," Kane says. "Listen. Keep your cool."