Catherine Blades is the SVP, Chief ESG and Communications Officer of Aflac, a company she’s been at for over six years. Catherine is a PR News Hall of Famer, Forbes' inaugural inductee in the Women in Communications Hall of Fame, a two-time Cannes Lion winner, a 2017 inductee into the PR Week Hall of Femme as well as the first American to win the Relations 4 the Future Medal at Davos. 

Catherine has also been named to the Latino Leaders Latina 100 (2020), was a Children’s Miracle Network CHANGEMAKER (2020), the inaugural PR Week Most Purposeful CCO (2019), a Top 25 Power Woman by NY Moves magazine, a four-time Top Woman in PR winner, was named to the Forbes Communications Council as a contributing writer, and serves as a member of the Fortune Most Powerful Women Community.

In the interview, we get into Catherine’s perspective on purpose-driven companies, what an ESG communications entails, and an incredible new incarnation of the Aflac duck that’s bringing hope and care to victims of childhood cancer through innovation.

Here are some key takeaways from this conversation between Lippe Taylor CEO Paul Dyer and Aflac CCO, Catherine Blades. To hear the entire conversation, check it out on the Damn Good Brands Podcast below.

Never waste a crisis. In the midst of the pandemic, Aflac took tremendous strides to keep their entire shareholder base whole, including setting up a no-interest loan program for their sales force, which mostly worked on commissions. Aflac also gave very generously (to the tune of $11 million) followed by a multitude of donations to minority-related causes that added up to 50 percent of the company’s total donations for the year. From a communications standpoint, crises enable companies to reveal who they really are. Don’t let them go to waste.  

Embrace your holistic view. Catherine made a very interesting observation on how Communications professionals are the only members of a company, outside of a president or CEO, who have to take the perspective of all shareholders into account when making decisions. Customers, investors, employees, shareholders, et al. all have perspectives you must consider as a comms executive, which speaks to the larger responsibility of Communications leadership and the holistic and macro perspectives it requires.   

Purpose and profit can go hand in hand. Catherine spoke about how Aflac’s commitment to being a company dedicated to purpose beyond shareholder value was pushed back on by some investors. Catherine then went on to explain how being purposeful, in addition to being the right thing, is profitable. Because in this day and age, people want to purchase from companies that are contributing to the greater good of society. This echoes a larger truth about how giving back is no longer a “nice to have” for brands, but is entirely table stakes in today’s economy.  

Paul Dyer: Welcome, Catherine! 

Catherine Blades: Thank you, Paul, happy to be here!

PD: So here we are. It's now almost September. The state of communications has obviously been upended by the pandemic. I've often heard the saying “Never waste a crisis,” with regards to people who advocate for things like business to digital transformation. You've mentioned crisis a couple of times in this prolonged crisis that we're enduring. You also posted an article on LinkedIn recently, titled “Crisis Reveals Character.” So obviously, this has been a tremendous experience, moment, opportunity for Aflac to reveal your true character. I'm wondering if you could share your thoughts on how Aflac has really been a leader in that regard.

CB: Let's talk about crises revealing character. Because companies have character too. Aflac did the most wonderful, wonderful thing. They looked at the crisis in a holistic way. This pandemic affects people's physical health, their emotional health and their financial health. So we looked at all of our audiences. We have 30,000 licensed sales agents that are 1099 tech status in the U.S. They are licensed to sell our product, and in a third of the cases, our competitors’ products. They're also commission-only 1099s. Which means if they're not selling, they're not earning. 

So not only did we want to have them come through this whole, we wanted to give them the financial tools they needed to be able to do that, as well as the technology to be able to continue to sell virtually and remotely. So instead of just sending them the information that was coming out from the U.S. government, we actually set up our own no-interest loan program for our 1099 independent sales agents. 

And then to enable them to continue to sell, we actually created virtual tools that had not been available before and we did this very quickly. Our employees, same thing. 98 percent went to remote work in a two-and-a-half-week period.

One of the reasons Aflac was able to respond so well to all of our stakeholders was because of the capital deployment strategy that we have. We had gone into the bond market in Q4 and raised a billion and a half dollars in capital. It takes capital to be able to do these things. Not that we saw a pandemic coming, but we've got a lot of smart finance guys who know that what goes up for a really, really, really long time has the possibility of coming down. And so we’re better prepared than most. 

And then on the philanthropic side, we had donated over $11 million to various causes, mostly around frontline workers and getting them the personal protection equipment they need. And then when the social injustice issues came to the forefront, we shifted our donation strategy for 2020. And that's part of that agility that we were talking about. I'm so proud, because at this point just a little over 50 percent of our philanthropic donations for 2020 have gone to minority-related causes. So it's about doing the right thing consistently, throughout every instance and every crisis that comes up. 

I just couldn't be more proud of the company and the way it's taken care of everyone and done the right things. My personal favorite program is My Special Aflac Duck. Hospitals are busy right now. Frontline care workers are busy. They don't necessarily have time for the little extras. But my team has rallied, and we've come up with some non-traditional distribution methods for our robotic companion for children going through cancer treatment. So again, non-traditional distribution, but still getting the right things to the right people.

PD: And just for anybody who's listening who doesn't know, can you give us a quick overview of My Special Aflac Duck, please?

CB: My Special Aflac Duck is a robotic companion for children going through cancer treatment. What many people don't know is we've had a 25-year partnership with the Aflac Cancer Center in Atlanta, Georgia. It's a top-10 cancer center in the country for children battling the disease. It's the largest treater of children with sickle cell disease in the United States. But these kids go through a very difficult time when they're going through treatment. So we created a way for them to do a couple of things through this robotic companion. Children take back their power through medical play. And this duck allows children to treat their duck, their animal, the way that the doctors and nurses and caregivers are treating them.

So it has all sorts of accoutrements that come with it. But it also has a port. And when the port is attached, it's just like the child's port. Same syringe size, everything. And the duck will develop a heartbeat. So while the child is treating the duck it's a comforting, calming companion. It can do deep breathing exercises with the child. 

Also, imagine being three years old, not terribly verbal. And I don't know if any of you have been in a hospital, but it can be a dreadful place to be. The people are very nice, but they come in every fifteen minutes: “How are you feeling?” And if you're not that verbal, you may not understand why you're angry today, or you may not understand what feeling nauseous means or how to articulate that. So we've come up with these RFID chip emojis.

So if you're the caregiver, you come in and you say, "Hey, how's your duck feeling today?" And there's a silly emoji, or there's a sad emoji, or there's a stressed emoji. Because everyone speaks emoji. And it takes the pressure off the child. It allows them to communicate better, which we hope will drive better outcomes. And then finally, kids like to play. So there is an app for that, but it works well without the app, where the duck can dance, the duck can blast off into outer space with children, take them to a Chinese garden or farm, all through this app with the different sounds. And the duck acts out and it makes noises and does all sorts of fun things. We have committed $3 million a year to the program in perpetuity until we find a cure for this terrible, terrible disease and children don't have to go through this anymore. But it's an opportunity for us to step in and help where governments often struggle.

In the United States alone, approximately 16,000 children are diagnosed with cancer every year. So that's 16,000 sets of parents who hear the words "your child has cancer" every year. And in spite of that, of all the funding the U.S. government forces into cancer treatment and research, less than 4 percent goes to childhood cancers. So again, it's a great way for a corporation to step in and help. And to do it in a unique way through the culmination of this wonderful social robot.

PD: It's an amazing program. Thank you for sharing all of that about it. So, ESG is a big focus of yours. For the uninitiated, can you explain what it entails? 

CB: Of course. ESG stands for Environmental, Social and Governance. So, think of it as CSR on steroids. Environmental commitment, social commitment--there are a number of ways you can measure and report these things out. We've chosen to do it through four main buckets. On the environmental side, we use TCFD (Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures) as our main report and then the SASB (Sustainability Accounting Standards Board) standards. And then on the social side, we actually very much and have for a long time used the GRI (Global Reporting Initiative) to benchmark against.

PD: You’ve said a couple of times that data should drive the strategy. And obviously, this is one of the things that has been an Achilles heel of the communications industry when compared with the marketing and advertising industry or digital industry since the beginning of time. I'm curious about your thoughts on whether data belongs as a part of the communications function. Or are you working in close partnership with the market research teams, or the analytics teams elsewhere within the company? And how do you make sure everybody's singing from the same song sheet when there's so much data out there?

CB: I think the answer to the first part of your question really depends on the culture and the assets you have and how you're structured within the organization. You work with what you have. And you make it work. I think that the other tricky thing is you've really got to nail down, okay, what do I want my outcomes to be? What do I want my results to be? Call your shot, if you will. And then back out your strategy based on where you want to get to. Let me use the data to determine two things. Where am I now? And then, how do I bridge the gap?

And then, of course, a lot of times we spend time just measuring on the backend, which that information is very important too. Especially if you're taking pulse checks and you're flexing in real time on something. But it can't just be about measuring tactics or just measuring the end result. You really need a robust, holistic approach. And the thing about the onset of contact is it makes it so much easier. It's not like it was years ago. You can do virtual online focus groups, you can do all sorts of things that, gosh, we never would have even thought about when we were trying to memorize our AP style books all those years ago. 

PD: So when you and I last spoke at that PRovoke Media media round table, one of the topics of discussion was the business roundtable statement about balancing the needs of various stakeholders beyond just creating shareholder value. Aflac was a signatory. And one of your comments in that conversation was that some of your investors had pushed back on Aflac being a signatory. So a lot has happened since last December. In terms of everybody's general awareness of society and inequality and all of these other things and the role that companies play, do you feel like there's still a reticence to accept corporations’ larger obligations to society?

CB: I think it's about purpose and profit. And the companies that do this well demonstrate that they do both and they do it in a very equitable manner. I will say, though, you're right. At first we did have a couple of folks making some noise. I will also share with you that three of our largest investors are BlackRock, State Street and Vanguard, who have been on the forefront of this in varying degrees since before our business round table message. I think people believe that this is here to stay. That if you have purpose, your profits will actually be better, because again, people will want to do business with you. They will want to be a shareholder in your company. And it's all part of that reputation management piece.

John Alada, who is just brilliant, says the most wonderful thing: that if you look at the role and function of communications, we are the only organization--outside of someone in the company with a CEO or president title--that has the license to look at all stakeholders equally. 

PD: Interesting. 

CB: You've got an IRA function that is thinking about one audience. You've got a marketing function that's thinking about one audience, the consumer. You've got HR thinking about one audience, the employees. We are the only other part of the organization that takes that holistic, overarching approach. And with that, data is much more important. And two, I love it because we get to think differently. We get to pro-and-con every single audience, the whole 360. I think that's one of the things my team has done extraordinary well, particularly during the pandemic, is to really look at every stakeholder audience and determine not only the upsides, but where the potential downsides might be as well.

PD: That's a very inspiring way of looking at the role that we play in larger corporations and this business environment. Catherine, thank you for sharing your insights and your advice. 

CB: My pleasure. Thank you for having me!