Flo and Progressive Insurance – How Not to Do Trust Recovery

How does a nice gal like Flo end up in a nasty fix like this?

Flo is Progressive Insurance’s TV fictional character.  Flo’s twitter handle (come on, you knew Flo has to tweet) is @ItsFlo and “her” bio reads, “Progressive’s always-happy-to-help insurance expert. Lover of discounts, unicorns and tacos. Plays a mean air guitar.”

So this headline had to be a bit of an image hit for Progressive:

Progressive Insurance’s Response to the Fisher Scandal is a Textbook Example of a PR Catastrophe.

Yes, you could say that. Click the link for the long, sad tale: the (very) short version is that Progressive insured a woman killed in a car accident. Progressive refused to pay her family a claim of $75,000 on the grounds that it had not been proven she had not been at fault – even though the other driver’s insurance company did not dispute fault.

Through some bizarre twists of law and amazing judgment on the part of Progressive, the woman’s family was forced to sue the other driver – and the woman’s brother claimed that Progressive’s legal team had, in fact, actually ended up working for the other driver.  Get that: the dead woman’s insurance company, in court, on behalf of the driver who killed her.

That story got legs on FaceBook, Gawker et al. Progressive responded with a tweet, saying they’d investigated and were “within our contractual obligations.” They tweeted the identical message to dozens of complainers.  Of course, the carbon-copy tweets then got put together on another site, making Progressive look even more ham-handed and insensitive.

Progressive then explained that, in fact, “Progressive did not serve as the attorney for the defendant in this case.”  Rumor quashed.

Except that, one hour after that posting, the internet sleuths came up with court records showing a Progressive attorney had been granted an allowance “to intervene as a party Defendant.” It depends on the what the meaning of the word “defendant” is, I guess.

And then Progressive lost the case anyway. And it all ended up on the “real” news too.

What Not To Do

Ah, where to begin. Let’s start with the easy stuff.

  • If you’re accused of doing something bad, and in fact you’ve been doing something that looks like bad, walks like bad, and rhymes with bad – for heaven’s sake don’t try to get off on a technicality. Don’t do it anyway, but especially don’t do it at a time like this.
  • Don’t confuse the law with ethics. “But it’s not illegal” is the last defense of the morally lame, and will never win in the court of public opinion. How well does “I’m not a crook” go over?  Does “within our contractual obligations” sound any better?
  • Don’t think you can outrun the internet. You are naked out there, and everyone’s waiting for you to deny the truth.  Simple answer: don’t do bad stuff, and if you do, don’t lie about it. Karma has a deputy these days called “search,” and it’ll getcha.
  • Pay attention to backlash, for heaven’s sake.  You pay good money for market research to give you feedback. When you get it for free in the form of bad publicity, look at what the optics are telling you! D’ya think defending your client’s killer might not play too well? D’ya think that robo-tweeting might not be a great social media strategy?  D’ya think that doubling down against a viral human interest story might suggest a little more PR sensitivity?

I’m a firm believer that we learn more by failure than by success.  If this hasn’t happened to your company, go knock on wood, and then go to school on Progressive. Such clumsiness shouldn’t go to waste: someone should learn from it before it happens to them.

  • Leanne HoaglandSmith
    • Trusted Advisor


      Thanks for picking that up; I have to cones I sort of held my breath to see if he and I are on the same page, and I’m gratified to see that we’re roughly 100% in sync.
      Thanks for the heads-up.

  • bob hurley

    Charlie your prescriptions for trust repair are spot on!

  • Mike Weinberg

    Charlie, you are a gift to the business world. I so appreciate your perspective, insight and wisdom. Great piece. And screw Flo and Progressive. They lost the battle and the war. How dumb. And what a waste of what was becoming a strong brand image.

  • Barbara Kimmel

    This is a good time for all readers to check their uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage. What’s that expression about educated consumers?

  • Dan Lovejoy


    It seems to me that this is not a PR problem. This situation did not befall them, like an airplane crash or a rotten executive that got caught with his pants down. The company deliberately engaged in some pretty egregious tactics to save $75,000.

    The result was the PR nightmare, which was completely foreseeable. The problem was their terrible behavior; the problem was compounded by their ham-handed recovery from an unrecoverable situation. You can’t defend the indefensible. It was seventy five thousand dollars. Good grief!

    Am I wrong?

    • Charles H. Green


      I suspect you’re mostly right, but I’m no insurance industry expert.

      It is normal for insurance firms to carefully vet payouts; there is after all, a such thing as insurance fraud. It is not unusual for them to contest them; and apparently it’s not unheard of to have someone testify on the other side of a case.

      Which is to say, it may or may not have been customary or egregious. Where I think you’re inarguably right is that it was foreseeable. The job of management, in fact, is to foresee, and they didn’t, and they continued to not get it in the face of more and more pushback.

      It’s interesting to note Barbara Kimmel’s second comment below; if a firm is financially stressed, it’s a very common thing to send the word out to the troops, “be careful, be tight in purchasing, stretch your payables, and contest pay-outs.” If that were the case here, it would provide one plausible explanation for why otherwise sane people would not notice that a common, if ugly, behavior had become egregiously evident and publicly reprehensible.

  • John

    I have to agree with Dan, this appears to be a conscious decision and they got caught. Flow has been a good spokes person and they have a lot of favorable press over the years but this story can cost them a lot: reputation, business, shareholder price and if they don’t follow your advice (which is very good) they could eventually lose the company.

    I mean really what were they thinking. To whom to I have a fiduciary duty? Shareholders or the contract holder.

    Keep up your good work,

  • D

    Excellent article and insights. A fair amount of corporate social media tend to be far to loose without regard to just how dangerous it can really be.

    Blogs, tweets, forums and FB pages deserve the same kind of scrutiny and executive oversight as any other marketing or corporate communication with an eye on not only the legal but obviously how it plays with the core values/mission statements.

    I think the Progressive mktg dept is hearing a huge sucking sound right about now. The sound of millions of well thought out branding dollars getting flushed.

    One lesson I would add is training. Anyone with power to post the written word on behalf of your corporation needs extensive training and guidance.

    • Charles H. Green


      You’re right, this is a great example; “new” social media are in the Big Leagues for real now, no one should doubt it any more.

  • disqus_MC0IWUY0Bu

    Progressive is a very dishonest company, lacking ethics. They forced me to pay insurance for somebody they maintained lived in my house, at the highest premium rate. Sooner or later, they have to pay their lack of ethics.

  • Pingback: PR Fail: How Progressive Insurance Made a Bad Situation a Public Relations Crisis()

  • Barbara Barfield


  • The Spirit Bear

    I don’t know, man. I think what they did was a real douchebag maneuver, but that’s to be expected from any fascist mega-corporation, they have no clue what ethics are, and that goes way back, at least as far back as the way J P Morgan treated Nicola Tesla. Personally, I pay Progressive $48 bux a month, and that’s less than half of what the British Lizzardboy wanted, as well as several other companies. I think it’s a conspiracy (and also piracy!) for any government to force you to have insurance in order to drive, and now they want to force Obummer-care down everyone’s throats, and it’s all a big crock of bullshit. Corporate thinking only cares about profits, and actual payouts cut into those profits. That’s why they pulled the douchebag move. I’d still bend Flo over a chair, though.