The ThinkInk Team’s Thoughts on the Progressive PR Debacle

Aug 30, 2012

By: Laura Morales, Hispanic Media Relations and Business Writer

“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. Again, this is a tragic situation, and we’re sorry for everything Mr. Fisher and his family have gone through.”

That – among other similarly flat, icy statements – is what Progressive Insurance had to say after its refusal to pay the estate of a policyholder killed in a car crash – and its self-serving court defense of that policyholder’s killer – lit up the social networks with understandable public outrage.

It tweeted the same canned response to many angry critics who read a Tumblr post by Matt Fisher, brother of deceased policyholder Kaitlynn Fisher, detailing the family’s ordeal. Did this robotic response help Progressive? Absolutely not. It only helped fan the flames of a self-inflicted PR debacle. It’s already lost thousands of customers.

In this age of social media, which has given consumers a way to control the conversation, companies can’t simply brush off valid consumer criticism with heartless boilerplate. Those days are over.  Open and frank communication with the public on social networks – rather than old-school obfuscation – should be part of every brand’s reputation-management strategy today. I’ll bet Progressive’s decision-makers are wishing they’d done the right thing from the start and just paid Fisher’s policy.

Everyone on the ThinkInk team has strong opinions on this issue:

This is counterintuitive to the Public persona and polished PR image they have worked so hard to create. In their commercials they make themselves out to be “the honest Flo’s” of insurance, going as far as creating characters depicting “the other guy” insurance companies as dishonest and less innovative than Progressive. But with these actions, Progressive shows that it is the same as the others. – Amanda Williams, Visibility Specialist

They’ve forever scarred their branding efforts. Consumers tend to hold onto these types of stories where the company is cast as the villain. All in all Progressive definitely stepped in it, leaving little in the way of any apology or explanation for their actions. Not even Flo’s upbeat persona can spin this one.  – Kyrsten Cazas, Community and Visibility Specialist

Public relations 101 will tell you it is the relationships you make and how you maintain them that will keep a business in the positive spotlight. In other words, exactly what Progressive’s PR team forgot. This catastrophe could have easily been addressed by quickly responding to Fisher’s family via clear and one-on-one communication. – Rachel Castro, Visibility Specialist

The PR nightmare that ensued from this case just goes to show how today’s “ever-connected” society has an increasing influence on the way we perceive a Company’s image – and how one instance, combined with social media awareness of that instance, can certainly move the needle of perception for any company, whether they are large or small. – Danielle Mason, Client Visibility Director, Canada

I was originally upset at Progressive’s canned Twitter response to people backlashing against the company following Matthew’s blog post. However, many people don’t remember that, legally, there was only so much the company could do… although I could have done without Flo’s smiling face sitting next to a company’s response to such a touchy subject.  – Christian Williams, Social Media Specialist

Progressive’s PR debacle may have damaged their reputation irreparably. In trying to save themselves money, they’ve lost thousands of customers and will end up losing more if they can’t fix their image.  Just goes to show that social media can’t be escaped and needs to be accounted for when trying to cover up mistakes.  – Rebeca Garcia, Visibility Specialist

This is one for the books. Everyone in insurance PR should be well aware of the extent to which their collective inability (or unwillingness) to pay out is presumed – rightly or wrongly. Which means, in a case like this, where a 24-year-old’s life has been taken, Progressive’s higher ups should have been doubly sensitive to an enraged public backlash. – Daniel Teigman, Business Writer and Analyst

So now that we’ve shared all our thoughts with you, it’s time to tell us what you think.

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