Getting Better at Doing Good: How Aflac Transformed its CSR Program

As someone old enough to remember the 1980s, I pondered a question while organizing my thoughts before putting figurative pen to paper to write this article: In our age of social media, would today’s youth be able to comprehend J.R. Ewing of the old Dallas series? (Hint: Think Billy the Kid in a board room, only less ethical.)

So much has changed in 30-plus years. What was acceptable behavior—or at least tolerated, before Enron and Bernie Madoff made Ewing, the fictional king of the dirty deal, look like Mother Teresa—is far from what consumers and investors will stomach today. As we know, it’s a new age: Customers and business partners place the metaphorical microscope not only on your ability to deliver quality products and services, but on the quality of your heart, your soul and your ability to empathize. In short, they want to know not only that you are a great company, but a good one, too.

People want ethics and at Aflac we are proud to consistently be on the World’s Most Ethical Companies, the Best Companies to Work For and Most Admired Companies lists. These are great honors, but until recently, there was a question of why we were included on these lists. It wasn’t because we were underqualified; we earned these accolades by being a good, caring company. No, the questions arose—and this is just our secret— because our formal CSR plan lacked focus.

It’s true. Of course, we had the programs, including a world-class commitment to curing childhood cancer, a devotion to diversity, sustainability, etc., all elements of a great CSR story. What we lacked, however, was a formal, integrated CSR plan that connected our good deeds with good business. Why? We lacked the research needed to do it right.

In 2015, all that changed.


Source: Aflac
Source: Aflac

Start with Research

We committed to a results-based, research-driven CSR program and nurtured it. To start, we asked the Reputation Institute to examine us. It was a sobering experience. Our reputation scores were good—in most cases, above average—but they weren’t where we expected they should be. We lagged in citizenship, workplace and leadership. With all we had done, including donating $113+ million to fight children’s cancer and fostering workplace diversity, we wondered how this could be. Regardless, those were the numbers.

So in 2015, we produced the Aflac Corporate Social Responsibility Survey (ACSR) to develop a baseline about what influenced consumers and investors concerning CSR. We repeated this survey in 2016 ( PRNP, Dec. 5, 2016). The following key findings enabled us to formalize a plan:

    75% of consumers likely will take negative action toward companies perceived as less than responsible,Companies that consumers see as irresponsible stand to lose as much as 39% of their customer base,
    83% of professional investors are more inclined to invest in a company well-known for its social responsibility, and
    20% of consumers say they would pay more for a product/service if they believe a company is socially responsible.

Another essential piece of data: 81% of consumers are more likely to purchase from companies that are active in philanthropy year-round as opposed to only in times of need. That was important because it told us to take full advantage of a program that we had in place since 1995, our commitment to childhood cancer (see chart).

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Fortified with information, we approached the C-suite and made a compelling business case for why we needed to do more to expand our reputation beyond being a company that supports childhood cancer initiatives in and around our home state of Georgia. We needed to be a national thought leader for ethics and responsibility. Armed with data, Aflac CEO Dan Amos signed off on additional dollars that enabled us to do what we believe are remarkable things.

First, in 2016, during National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, we sponsored CureFest, a grassroots effort in Washington, D.C. Parents and families who have faced the horrors of childhood cancer organized the event. After a successful satellite media tour and a six-minute interview on CNBC’s Squawk Box, the foundation was laid for creating that national dialogue. A few months later, Aflac sponsored The Washington Post’s first national discussion on cancer, Chasing Cancer, which brought experts, researchers, celebrities and families to Washington for an eye-opening discussion on finding a cure. After garnering more than 200 million media impressions, more is planned for 2017.

The Results

So, did our effort help? The research says it did. Aflac’s Reputation Institute pulse score soared 3.4 points, which the Institute says is a “significant” movement. Not only did our overall score surge, but so did our marks in the dimensions we focused on, including significant increases in the citizenship and workplace categories. In addition, our CSR program received and is being considered for industry awards that should further embolden the Aflac corporate communications team to operate as more than just a town crier, but as a vital business partner.

As we said, a lot has changed since Kristin shot J.R. (the cliffhanger to end all cliffhangers). As more research pours in about the value of being socially responsible, I doubt that today’s young people would be able to identify with the likes of J.R. Ewing. People want ethics, not conniving deals, and the people mean business. In an age of Google and Wikipedia, he would never last long enough to have an impact.

NOTE: This content appeared originally in PR News Pro, February, 20, 2017. For subscription information, please visit:

CONTACT: Jon Sullivan is director, corporate communications, Aflac. He can be reached at: