Aflac’s comms senior VP: ‘Communicators need to be the calm in the chaos’

Here’s how Catherine Hernandez-Blades is steering her organization through the current crisis.

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Most seasoned communicators have managed a crisis at least once in their career and are prepared for a single-impact incident, such as a natural disaster, an act of terrorism, an oil spill or a corporate scandal.

Few—if any—communicators were prepared for a crisis on the scale of COVID-19, says Catherine Hernandez-Blades, senior vice president and chief ESG and communications officer with insurance giant Aflac.

Since the coronavirus crisis hit with full force in early March, Aflac’s communications department has produced more than 200 pieces of communications for internal and external stakeholders. “The most positive thing I’m seeing is how creative people are [in crisis response],” says Hernandez-Blades.

The team created a 30-page grid outlining all the crisis communications tactics the company might need to activate. The grid maps out all the stakeholders, from the board of directors, to sales leadership, to regulators and employees. “It’s been a fascinating exercise from a business continuity and integrated stakeholder communications standpoint to see this all laid out on a such a global scale,” Hernandez-Blades adds.

Affectionately recognized for its duck mascot, Aflac is a Fortune 500 company offering supplemental health insurance to 50 million people worldwide. About 95% of its 5,700 employees became remote workers in less than two weeks. Though the company has been fortunate to not have to lay off any employees, having the technical infrastructure in place for so many employees living in a mid-sized city (Columbus, Georgia) has been a hurdle and required immediate investment in technology at a time when most companies have been scaling back on spending.

Hernandez-Blades, who oversees Aflac’s communications and its environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives, will be inducted into Ragan’s Top Women in Communications Hall of Fame later this year. She exudes grace and intelligence in any public setting you see her in and has been a champion for the industry on corporate social responsibility—and a force for sure in Aflac being named to Fortune’s 2020 list of the World’s Most Admired Companies, being added to Bloomberg’s Gender-Equality Index and on the list of Ethisphere’s World’s Most Ethical Companies.

Hernandez-Blades and I spoke in early April about leadership, purpose and how communicators are, well, communicating. Here are some highlights:

On the communicator’s role right now: “It’s communications and human resources full stop right now. Take care of your people first and then communicate, communicate, communicate.”

Leadership skills that matter most during this crisis: “Communicating hope and having great judgment. As a leader, you need to be realistic and provide solutions to complex problems.  We will get through this.  How well we do depends on our ability to make key decisions now.”

On communicators stepping up: “So much of what we do is invisible until it goes wrong. Communicators need to be the calm in the midst of the chaos. Take care of your people first, but also remember to take care of yourself.”

Calling it what it is: “From about 7:30–10:30 a.m. I am on what I call ‘COVID Calls’ with various teams and divisions.”

An excerpt from her weekly letter to her team: “We have the opportunity to be creative in the ways we handle stress in these unprecedented times. We have the opportunity to contribute something to others around us, as service is such a rewarding feeling, isn’t it?”

On brands’ marketing efforts during this crisis: “Everything should focus on helping people through this pandemic. Companies can’t be tone deaf.  We are in this for the long term.  I believe that in the end consumers will penalize those who get it wrong and patronize those who get it right.”

The advantage of being a purpose-driven organization: “So many organizations are looking for lifelines for their business and for their employees. Purpose is at the heart of it. Part of sustainability is having it already baked into your business planning; then you are already doing the right thing for the long term.”

The potential positive impact of the pandemic: “This crisis will slow us down, and in a counterintuitive way—as in this most human of crises, we’re creating deeper connections through an artificial means: technology.  I believe we’ll be kinder to each other and gentler with each other.”

On building character (quoting from Dennis Leary): “I love this quote, because it’s so true: ‘Crisis doesn’t build character, it reveals it.’”

Diversions at the end of the day: “I’ve rediscovered my back porch along with a glass of wine, cooking and spending time with my dog—oh and of course, my husband.”

For more on how to navigate the current crisis, join Ragan’s Crisis Leadership Board.

COMMENT

One Response to “Aflac’s comms senior VP: ‘Communicators need to be the calm in the chaos’”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    “Calm in the chaos” is good, and even more appealing to many new business prospects of smaller PR firms is that communicators can help supply “cash in the crunch.” Calmness and goodwill are good, and MONEY could seem to many small business owners to be even better.

    Fortunately, even in this lockdown, there is plenty that communicators can do to help small business get more money.

    RESTAURANTS. One opportunity is to come to the aid of the party. In addition to take-out and delivery now—which is business that communications can increase by emailing a large number of neighborhood people–a huge source of revenue for many restaurants comes from parties—weddings (June cometh), graduations, anniversaries, memorial dinners following funerals, and company events like a dinner to enthuse and inform the sales team.

    Communications planning can increase not only business-bosting delivery business now but also more money later by now making a “special offer” to churches that will line up delayed-but-important memorial dinners (that provide revenue for the churches as well as restaurants), sales managers who can have dinners not only for their own sales team but also groups of prospects, public and private school executives who may want to celebrate delayed-but-important graduations, plus summer camp managers and other prospects for parties that can bring in serious money.

    RETAILERS. The “out of sight out of mind” peril is a danger to retailers but communicators can guide retailers to use email not only to stay in the sight and minds of prospects but to build demand for special goods and sales that email can make known so as to enthuse prospects.

    MEDICAL AND DENTAL OFFICES. The patients understandably may have been reluctant to call for appointments and then squeeze into waiting rooms with people who have heavens knows what, but “safety sense” emails can help patients understand that hek-ups and tests—now available—can be now protective, AND appointments can be scheduled at times when no one else will be in the waiting room!

    LAWYERS. Each lawyer can help dozens or even scores of clients to get what is coming to them from government and perhaps to avoid foreclosures and major late fees. (What bank wants to face a question of whether a loan may have been a “predatory loan”?) A reality is that the most hassled people are often the legally unprotected; if one gets a threatening letter, the letter-writer may more likely go hassle someone else instead if a reply comes from a lawyer asking difficult “specification” questions and hinting at the possibility of a counterclaim.

    POLITICAL PEOPLE. Candidates and political mangers know that who will win coming elections may be decided in part by who communicates well now, and who uses email well enough to bring in a substantial political warchest.

    Communicators are needed because money is needed, money is good, and good communications can bring in good money.

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