OLD Media Moves

Progressive’s public stumble

August 30, 2012

Posted by Liz Hester

Progressive Corp.’s insurance division has been under fire lately for a public relations disaster, which started with a blog post that quickly spread through the Internet.

Matt Fisher, fed up with his family’s treatment by Progressive in the wake of his sister’s death, wrote this post detailing his side of the story. In it, he talks of their struggle to get Progressive to pay a claim after his sister was killed in a car accident in 2010. The blog post was picked up and the story spread.

Progressive, which has a $12 billion market value, was trying to avoid paying $75,000 to the Fisher family.  Under Maryland law, the Fisher’s couldn’t directly sue Progressive but instead had to take the other driver to court to prove negligence and hope to force Progressive to pay the claim.

Progressive’s response was this statement, claiming it did not act as the defendant’s lawyer. This prompted Fisher to update his blog pointing out that Progressive had a lawyer in court sitting at the defendant’s table. The Huffington Post later reported that Progressive provided counsel at the trial and only represented the company, not the defendant.

This is the first and possibly the largest mistake Progressive made in its public relations debacle – hiding behind a technicality. While Progressive’s statement wasn’t false, it was misleading. Any goodwill they would have received by a show of sympathy was negated by how it looked when more details of their actions came out.

Besides the statement, the Progressive machine took to Twitter to respond to some of the comments. What it didn’t do was actually respond. Progressive posted the same, canned response using the TwitLonger app to exceed the 140-character limit:

“This is a tragic case, and our sympathies go out to Mr. Fisher and his family for the pain they’ve had to endure. We fully investigated this claim and relevant background, and feel we properly handled the claim within our contractual obligations.”

CNN Money’s Brian Patrick Eha said it best:

Pro tip for big brands: When talking on Twitter about how you handled a customer’s tragic accident, the phrase “contractual obligations” is unlikely to play well.

This clearly shows that Progressive didn’t fully appreciate how quickly a story like this can go viral and do some serious damage to its reputation. They also seem to have little understanding of how to phrase responses.

One of the biggest mistakes a large brand can make is sounding like a big company run by corporate drones, particularly under the harsh glare of the business media. There’s nothing in the tone or phrasing of this statement to indicate a person is behind it. What many brands have trouble with is taking a well-evolved corporate tone and putting it into the “voice” of social media.

The appeal of social media is that it’s real people talking about issues, opinions, politics and lunch. You can turn to Twitter to find out where your favorite food truck is parked and the latest official statement from the Romney campaign. But many large corporations struggle with sounding less corporate and earning the trust of those who get their information from social media.

It sounds simple, but once you get layers of lawyers, communicators, product and marketing people in a room trying to come up with a Tweet, the outcome sounds insincere. There’s no magic formula, but as Eha said, the phrase “contractual obligations” sounds cold in the face of a family grieving for a lost daughter.

What’s also shocking is the lack of public apology to the Fisher family. Progressive responded after the verdict with this statement explaining its version of the case’s facts and saying it’s working with the family. The tone is again corporate and technical. The “sympathies” conveyed seem hollow and perfunctory.

Comments on the company’s site indicate that many find this explanation lacking in empathy. But, Progressive should get credit for leaving the unflattering comments up. This indicates it does understand the basic principle that transparency is always best.

I’m sure that the public relations department is under a lot of fire for their handling of this case. Having watched many other PR disasters unfold publicly it is surprising the company would try to defend themselves with nuanced legal arguments instead of admitting wrong and trying to fix it.

Most PR people will tell you that if you made a mistake, admit it, apologize, and fix it. This can help quell the outrage, silence the opposition and allows the company to take control of the story and its place in the news. By owning up to mistakes and following through with fixing them, company’s can appear more human.

If Progressive had simply apologized and worked to fix the issues with the Fisher family, it’s unlikely that Matt Fisher’s blog posts would have been shared more than 10,000 times. And many of those outraged by their response, may have been talking about their ability to own up to mistakes and be transparent when fixing them – something that most people have come to expect.

And if that doesn’t work, send in Flo.

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