Hard Choices: Stifling the AFLAC Duck

Photograph by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Last March, AFLAC Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Dan Amos was busy dealing with the fallout from the tsunami in Japan—where 75 percent of his company’s insurance business is situated—when he got a phone call that presented him with an unexpected choice: Should he or shouldn’t he fire the company’s long-time spokesman Gilbert Gottfried over some tasteless tsunami-related jokes the comedian had made on Twitter? Given the inevitable PR damage that was bound to happen, Amos didn’t have much time to decide.

I got a call from a local newspaper reporter telling me that Gilbert Gottfried had just tweeted some really inappropriate jokes about Japan. I’m sitting there working on trying to donate money to the Red Cross and figuring out what the situation on the ground was, if we could even get into Tokyo—a million important things going on and this drops in my lap. It could not have happened at a worse time; it was the thing of least interest to me. But I knew this story was going to break in a bad way. I asked the reporter to give me an hour to check it out before he wrote his piece. I needed to verify these reports and figure out what to do. I knew if told him I had no comment right there, they were going to run with the story and it would’ve been bad.

I hung up the phone and called together a group. We quickly verified that he had in fact written these things. After I read them, it was simply a matter of saying, ‘That’s it, we’re getting rid of him.’ But that created some very big problems. Every commercial had to be pulled, which meant we didn’t have a single thing to run on TV. Fortunately, we found an older commercial that was like a silent movie. It was the only thing we had without Gilbert’s voice. So we ran with that for a while, and then quickly decided we needed to get a new voice.

But it wasn’t as easy a decision as you think it would be. I’ve never had to make a faster decision in my life. We didn’t have time to reach out to Gilbert. I didn’t really have time to consider the impact of having to pull all our ads. But it was absolutely the right move. I don’t think I realized until after the fact how important it was that we acted quickly. These days, you don’t have time to wait. The world moves too fast. —As told to Matthew Philips

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