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.