Top Five Rules of Crisis Communications

Top Five Rules for Crisis Communications and The Brilliance of Aflac’s New Silent Commercial

Aflac recently fired the voice behind their duck, Gilbert Gottfried, for making horrible, off-color remarks about the Japanese after the recent earthquake and tsunami. Not only did Aflac immediately fire Gottfried, they also stopped airing all their TV ads.

In late March, Aflac began airing this brilliant, silent TV commercial. In 30 seconds, this commercial:

  • Subtly addresses the firing of Gottfried
  • Explains what Aflac offers
  • Asks viewers to visit their Facebook page
  • Invites people to apply to become the next voice behind the duck

Aflac’s quick, appropriate response has turned what could have been a public relations disaster into an opportunity to re-launch its brand, engage with the public and gain new fans.

Aflac has been successful in navigating this PR firestorm because they followed the “Top Five Rules of Crisis Communications”:

1. Assess the scope of the problem and build an appropriate response

Gottfried was Aflac. Aflac had no choice but to fire him or risk being viewed as standing by Gottfried’s statements. Not all PR crises are as cut and dry. Remember that an email from one disgruntled person is not the same as a front-page exposé. The response should be commensurate with the reach of the crisis.

2. Work to minimize the spread of information

By acting quickly in firing Gottfried, the public knew where Aflac stood on the issue and media stopped covering Gottfried’s comments and relationship with Aflac.

3. Respond quickly but release as few public statements as possible

To my knowledge, Aflac has only made one public statement and it was around the firing of Gottfried. The commercial—not an executive—creatively communicates the need for a new voice behind the duck but does not mention Gottfried or his comments. This is brilliant messaging because it does not reintroduce the problem (Gottfried). If you did not know about Gottfried’s comments and subsequent firing, you would likely just think that Aflac is launching a contest to find a new voice for its duck.

4. Identify a spokesperson

Aflac Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Michael Zuna released the statement about Gottfried’s comment. Because Gottfried is such a public figure, it was appropriate for Aflac to use a top executive to make the announcement. Remember, the “higher up” the spokesperson, the more visible the response—and thus the more visible the crisis.

5. Rely on messaging

In the new commercial, Aflac leads with their standby messaging: if you get injured and find yourself out of work, will you have enough money to tide you over? Then, the commercial addresses Aflac’s need for the new voice behind the duck. By sharing the Aflac distinctives before addressing the need for a spokesperson, the commercial appropriately addresses the Gottfried issue without being apologetic. Organizations that are overly apologetic can prolong the life of the crisis and, ultimately, align themselves more strongly with guilt than without.

What do you think? Do you like how Aflac has handled this transition? What would you have done differently?

About Jocelyn Broder

Jocelyn Broder is vice president at Robin Tracy Public Relations. She has managed the communications efforts of one of the world’s most recognized brands–Coca-Cola–and launched turn-key communications initiatives for some of the world’s most respected ministries, non-profit organizations, authors and publishers (including two book campaigns that made all four national best-seller lists). Before finding her love for PR, Jocelyn was a writer at The Oregonian, a top 25 newspaper.

(Image Source: Ducks in the morning by gorfor)


  1. I think that this crisis was really handled well and actually nicely turned into a social media marketing opportunity. Lots of props to the team / agency that came up with this. In general, a lot of brands are looking for opportunities to better engage their customers with their brands & products. It’s unfortunate that Gottfried said what he said, however, this may actually turn out to be a better opportunity.

    Thank you as well for listing the Five Rules of Crisis Management. A simple and practical list. I’m saving it for reference!


  2. I hadn’t seen the actual commercial yet, so thanks for bringing it to my attention. I think it’s a witty and perfectly appropriate response to the situation. Props to Aflac! I do wonder, however, if they should be re-voicing the duck, or just come up with a new spokes-creature entirely. In my mind, the duck will always sound like Gottfried.

  3. While I agree with the five steps you outline, I think Aflac brought this “crisis” on itself. I’d be willing to bet fewer than two percent of the public, let alone Aflac customers, were aware that Gottfried provided the voice of the Aflac duck. I’d also be willing to bet that the first time most people heard about this “controversy” was when Aflac announced Gottfried’s firing. Furthermore, where was Aflac’s “outrage” when they hired Gottfried in the first place: his reputation as a crude comic was already well-known. This is the same guy who, within a month of 9/11, appeared at an event in New York and made a joke about an airplane having to get directions to the Empire State Building. But, hey, kudos to Aflac. They turned the Japanese tsunami into a major PR coup for themselves.

  4. I am impressed at the speed at which the crisis was averted. Guide no 3, respond quickly with few apologies is the best strategy under the circumstances that Aflac found itself. Most customers are comfortable with action taken to manage the crisis than apologies that imply lack of damage control.

    This is a great lesson for most of us who would fret at such a magnitude of crisis. Kudos Aflac and Jocelyn for the Article.

  5. It’s a minor point but perhaps this title would be better if it had “PR Crisis” in the title. It’s a little distinction but an important one.


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