How Aflac’s CSR Impacts its Reputation


Register for PRSA’s next Case in Point, “How a Duck Helped Brand a Corporate Responsibility Program,” on July 25th from 3:00 to 4:15 pm ET. Sullivan will share Aflac’s CSR journey, focusing on how the beloved mascot became a leading advocate in the fight against cancer, and the story behind the robotic companion My Special Aflac Duck.

Q&A With Jon Sullivan

Jon Sullivan is Director of Corporate Communications for Aflac where he leads the planning and execution of the FORTUNE 126 Company’s CSR program, external communication and media relations. In 2016 & 2017, Mr. Sullivan was named the PR News PR Professional of the Year. He is also the 2016 American Business Awards Winner for PR Executive of the Year. He has received numerous other industry awards for his work, including a Cannes PR Lion, Silver and Bronze Anvils and an Effie. 

I know that Aflac has been on Fortune’s Most Admired and Best Places to work list for several years, but I was surprised to learn that very few people knew about CSR efforts. How did you discover that, and why do you think that is the case? 

When we looked at the 2015 Reputation Track report, we realized that we were underperforming in corporate citizenship even though Aflac and its agents have raised more than $122 million to support childhood cancer treatment and research at the Aflac Cancer Center. 

A lot of our PR focus was focused regionally. So, we made a deliberate effort to raise our profile and expand are effort beyond the Southeast region to national efforts. We sponsor CureFest for Childhood Cancer, a yearly weekend of activities held on the Mall in Washington, D.C, and work with The Washington Post’s Chasing Cancer campaign and Atlantic Media on events that help generate a conversation on a more national level about childhood cancer. 

How did the Aflac Duck help you achieve your goal of increased awareness and enhancing your reputation? 

The Aflac Duck has always been part of our marketing and cause marketing campaigns, but we always knew we could do more. So we thought about developing a high tech version of the duck that can be used by kids with cancer in a very tangible and touchable way. The result of that desire is the My Special Aflac Duck. 

My Special Aflac Duck, a high-tech robotic companion, is designed to help distract children coping with cancer. We are very careful to point out that it is not medicine, nor will it impact the outcome of cancer treatments, but if it provides comfort and helps solve other issues associated with childhood cancer, then we will know that it has had a wonderful outcome. 

When we unveiled this robotic duck at CES, not only did it receive large-scale media attention (more than 1,000 stories), but it won the Best of CES 2018 Best of CES 2018 Award for Best Unexpected Product, the “Tech for A Better World” CES Innovation Award, and the IHS Markit Innovation Award for Robotics and Drones. 

Our goal is to start distributing My Special Aflac Duck in September 2018, to newly diagnosed child with cancer in America in select locations before expanding across the country during the winter. 

As Aflac continues to grow its national CSR leadership position, how will you and your team measure ongoing success? 

We work closely with the Reputation Institute and their seven dimensions of reputation. But it’s not only for measurement, it is for guidance. Each year we review the assessments that they provide, which includes narrative about what is working and what isn’t working and we adjust our program accordingly. 

We also conduct our own annual survey to determine how consumers, investors and business decision makers are viewing CSR. How does it impact purchasing, investing or business-related decisions. We garner a trove of information from our survey that helps us level-set and set goals. 

In addition to the Reputation Institute, of course we look at how the industry is viewing our progress. We were pleased that the SABRE awards recently gave us their top distinction for our CSR Program and other groups, including PRSA, have provided feedback through their awards program that we are on the right track. Of course, the most important metric is the impact that our work has on our business. With surveys everywhere showing that the up and coming generations are more fixated on CSR than their predecessors are, we know that our work is having a significant impact on Aflac’s business. And in recent months, our business results have been trending very well. 

What are some of the CSR survey findings? 

This is the third year that we are conducting the Aflac Corporate Social Responsibility Survey. It is important to note that this survey is not about Aflac. In fact, Aflac is not mentioned at all. This is about how consumers, investors and business decision makers consider CSR in their purchasing and investing decisions. We have found that it matters a lot. For instance, 81 percent of people said that they would prefer to do business with a company that they find to be responsible, and that is active in philanthropy on a regular basis. In last year’s survey we found that 72 percent of investors and 81 percent of consumers believe that a company cannot pay men more than women for the same work and still be seen as responsible. In fact 74% of consumers said that they would not forgive a company that does so and more than 50% of consumers are willing to drive further and pay more to shop at a store seen as responsible. 

A key takeaway in 2018 is that 79% of respondents rank creating a culture where employees feel safe from harassment as a top or high priority, and 72% say it has become more important in the past year, likely driven by current events such as the #metoo movement. The bottom line is that CSR is no longer a nice thing to have, it’s table stakes. And if you’re not engaged in it, it will impact your business. 

What advice would you offer a communications professional who wants to build a case for investing in Corporate Citizenship at his or her company? 

I would advise what has worked for us. You need to impress upon leadership that CSR is no longer the “nice thing to do” only if you have the time or resources. It is a vital component of the business plan. Fortunately at Aflac, which has always been ahead of the CSR curve, convincing leadership was not too difficult to do. But being able to provide the data from our surveys and from the Reputation Institute is the tangible proof that they can review and make the appropriate determinations. And it is not only about money, it is buy-in and participation. You cannot do an effective CSR program without the leaders of your company actively participating. We are fortunate at Aflac that leaders from the CEO, CFO, President and General Counsel, all have a strong interest in CSR and helping enhance the company’s reputation.