Catherine Hernandez-Blades with Taryn at Aflac Cancer Center*

By Corrie J. Younginer

As senior vice president, chief ESG and communications officer at Aflac, you could say that Catherine Hernandez–Blades is a busy woman. But, that wouldn’t quite cut it. In our short conversation, it was easy for me to see that she is also a determined, passionate woman with an unfailing desire to lift marginalized voices. In addition, Catherine transformed Aflac’s Corporate Social Responsibility program into SABRE and PRSA Anvil award winner. We’ll delve deeper into that, but for now it’s my pleasure to share some of Catherine’s insight and advice from her storied career as an influential leader in public relations. 

“Without equity, you can’t be inclusive”

Of Aflac’s workforce, 70 percent is female, and ethnic minorities compose almost 50 percent. To put this statistic into perspective, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that of the 7,376 employed in the finance and insurance industry, 55 percent are women and approximately 78 percent are men, while minorities make up 30 percent of the industry’s workforce1. Sometimes in the PR industry we can become stuck on strategy and phrasing, but Aflac has driven the equity conversation internally, as well as externally, to inspire others and prove it can be done dedication and diligence.

In addition to actively promoting a diverse workforce, Aflac is dedicated to the idea of pay parity. According to Catherine, “Without equity you can’t be inclusive. If you’re not paying people at parity for equal work for the same jobs, then you have a big problem.” It required an enormous amount of effort and research, but with Aflac’s leadership the Company has been able to flourish as a beacon of inspiration for other corporations that claim equal pay is ‘too difficult’ to implement. 

Return on Reputation

Catherine helped reframe corporate social responsibility as a vital investment rather than a lofty goal with the idea of ‘return on reputation’. I asked her more about this process, and how she essentially ‘pitched’ the idea of ‘doing the right thing.’ She passionately described the PULSE score, a measurement metric designed to capture the positive business benefits associated with DE&I and CSR. “We’re in the business world. If it doesn’t drive revenue, decrease expenses or enhance the brand in a tangible, measureable way we have a fiduciary responsibility to our stakeholders not to do it. You have to make the business case for DE&I and prove that it drives revenue, decreases expenses or enhances the brand in a tangible way.” Catherine concedes that without multivariate regression analysis, it’s difficult to prove causation. However, the correlation is uncanny– when the PULSE score is up, almost everything is up. 

 Advice for building a mentor network

  • Don’t confuse a mentor with a sponsor.

With a mentor, you have to do the work- they’ll provide guidance. A sponsor actually does work to get you the next job.

  • Come prepared, be concise

Mentors have a finite amount of time, so rather than casting too broad of a net, select different mentors based on a special skill or unique vantage point. Then, it’s important to communicate the specific skill or area of expertise you’re interested in learning more about. This will allow you to leverage the best of each person in your network while remaining respectful of their time. 

“Actually, it really is rocket science!”

Catherine spent a significant portion of her career in aerospace and defense­– a heavily male-dominated industry now, but especially during her time in the industry. She clearly enjoyed this part of her career as she recalls fondly “I miss being able to say, ‘Actually, it really is rocket science!’” She was usually the only woman in the room, but she didn’t let that stop her. However, she did face blatant sexism at one point, but while that experience was difficult, “It taught me that I have to be prepared and ready with answers and solutions from a business perspective. In order to succeed in this industry, you need to use your unique experiences and perspective to your advantage. Bring your whole self in the door.” Reclaiming power and agency following a negative experience is quite an obstacle for anyone, but Catherine’s unflappable spirit was evident in her confident assertion that “the only person that should be embarrassed or sorry in that situation is the offender.”

“Make yourself indispensable”

Catherine and I also discussed one of the many facets of discrimination in the modern workplace that is often overlooked– ageism. Catherine chuckled as she recalled that as a Gen Xer, all of the same, negative traits associated with millennials existed about Gen X while she was growing up and entering the workforce as a “latchkey kid.” We also discussed how to combat negative stereotypes associated with the Baby Boomer generation, while agreeing that Gen Z’s arrival in the workforce could prove to be a watershed moment for the industry. Of this watershed moment, Catherine touted the idea of personal accountability. “Come in and add value. As long as you’re adding value, you can make yourself indispensable.”

Corrie J. Younginer is a current DePaul PR/Advertising grad student with a background in social media copywriting and internal communications. When not hamming it up in improv classes at Second City/the iO, she enjoys vegging out at Chicago’s many vegan hot spots. Corrie is actively seeking an entry-level role at a PR or Advertising agency in the Chicago area.
*Photo: Catherine Blades at the first duck delivery event for My Special Aflac Duck, the social robot for children with cancer, at the Aflac Cancer Center. Catherine explains, “That is Taryn, our angel. She helped us develop the My Special Aflac Duck, we brought her to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. We found out a few days before this event that the cancer had returned. She insisted on going into treatment after the event. It was so much a part of her. She didn’t win her fight and passed away a few months after this photo was taken. Her mother asked that we continue to honor her memory by using her photos every chance we could. And, so, we do.