A Social Media PR Problem

Candida McCollam in Social Media Today writes that For Progressive, Social Media’s Not Going With The Flo.

She writes that Progressive Insurance seemed to be  ill-prepared to respond to Matt Fisher’s viral post ““My Sister Paid Progressive Insurance to Defend Her Killer In Court.”   The most damning passage in the post is this:

At the trial, the guy who killed my sister was defended by Progressive’s legal team. If you are insured by Progressive, and they owe you money, they will defend your killer in court in order to not pay you your policy.

Their response is described as a “textbook example of a PR failure.”

A Poor Response

An Ill Thought Out Initial Response: After the story was posted, many people began tweeting and commenting critically on the company’s Facebook pages. Using the site “Twit Longer” which enables users to post tweets that are longer than 140 characters. Progressive quickly responded:

“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.”

When the link was pasted to dozens of different people alongside the humorous image being of Flo, it made Progressive appear robotic, and  people began taking screen shots of their Twitter page and mocking them:

An Ill Conceived Subsequent Response Adds Insult to Injury: To make things worse, as the message got pasted  so many times, the Twit Longer account got disabled for breaking spamming rules. rendering all the tweet links dead. Progressive subsequently deleted all the tweets and removed Flo from their image. When the news began to cover Progressive’s response, they released a longer statement linked on their Facebook page and Twitter:

“I’d like to take this opportunity to explain Progressive’s role in this complex case. First and foremost, our deepest sympathies go out to Kaitlynn Fisher’s family. To be very clear, Progressive did not serve as the attorney for the defendant in this case. He was defended by his insurance company, Nationwide. There was a question as to who was at fault, and a jury decided in the Fisher family’s favor just last week. We respect the verdict and now can continue to work with the Fisher family to reach a resolution.

Chris Wolf
Claims General Manager

In other words, Progressive held Matt Fisher’s facts to be wrong, and appeared to deny that they sent an attorney.

Spiraling Out of Control: This was followed up by the Fishers in another blog post,  giving the name of Progressive attorney he remembers being there. Within an hour of Progressive posting that statement, various internet users found the original court records from the trial  and identified the attorney, disproving the Claims Manager’s statement:

A man who identified himself as representing Progressive appeared in court acting as an “interested party” on behalf of the defense. Progressive was apparently “just playing word games with the definition of ‘defended.’” The records also stated that the Progressive attorney had been granted an allowance “to intervene as a party Defendant.”

A Poor Social Response Strategy

Given all the dollars spent on their integrated marketing campaign, how could they have been so ill-prepared to respond to this reputation management crisis? Did Progressive Insurance lack a social media strategy to mitigate such criticism? Did they fail to implement a process to monitor and engage with customers?

Reviewing the comparative NetBase brand summary, Candida finds that, over the past year GEICO has enjoyed the largest share of voice, followed by Progressive and Allstate:

  • Net Sentiment: GEICO and Allstate were almost are on par
  • Passion Intensity: GEICO was slightly in the lead.
  • Share of buzz: Progressive was low until its recent debacle.

Following the incident, Progressive’s Net Sentiment and Passion Intensity have fallen to the lowest share, indicating “negative chatter and emotional VOC discord over the Katie Fisher case.”

The competitive Net Sentiment 12 month trend analysis shows GEICO looks like this:


Progressive Trails in VOC

To begin with, in a field where auto insurance carriers have increased ad spend by 60%, Progressive lagged Geico and Allstate in ad spend, Yet, their clever campaigns appeared to boost their market share, as Allstate has lost market share over the past 5 years. Still, somehow, Alstate managed to maintain high Net Sentiment and Passion Integrity over the past 12 months.

Are ad spending and clever icons enough?   Candida notes that other insurers such as Nationwide appear to be moving away from comic characters  to a warm and fuzzy tone more in sync with difficult economic times.

  • Progressive’s VOC: While Flo is highly visible, the VOC (Voice of the Customer metrics) is ambiguous, with some finding her engaging and others annoying and lacking authenticity.    The same dissonance is expressed regarding the Progressive commercials.
  • Geico’s VOC: The VOC for the Gecko character is also mixed.
  • Allstate’s VOC:  The “Mayhem” commercial trends positively with predominant VOC appreciation for authentic humor.

While NetBase measures how ad campaigns impact consumer perception trends, other issues include customer service and claims management.  Given the failure of Progressive to respond satisfactorily to social media criticism, one wonders how well Progressive would fare in these areas.  As Candida puts it, they appear to be lacking a “customer-centric social strategy that includes a non-robotic people-centric crisis deployment system—a true test of ability to genuinely deliver on brand proposition.”

The Takeaway: Be Prepared

This demonstrates how much social media has changed the landscape of customer relations. Poor social media strategy embroiled Progressive in a massive scandal, and their ill thought out attempts to contain the story created a larger one. Jon Bershad  of Media-ite sums it up:

They lost the court case, they were going to have to pay anyway. They could have just said that from the very beginning. Instead, they misused social media platforms and then tried to hide facts through careful phrasing. The fact of the matter is, in 2012, the Internet will find out the truth. Really, really fast.