"Don’t buy insurance from Progressive."
No brand wants to see anyone on the Internet telling others not to buy its product. But as any multimillion dollar brand has come to surely experience, there are a lot of haters in the world and talk on the Internet is cheap. But the case with Progressive Insurance is different and its bungled handling of the criticism has turned what should have been one of those dismal, forgettable cases of the insurance industry being the stupid greedy insurance industry everyone knows it is, into a PR disaster that may do the brand genuine harm.
On August 13, New York comedian Matt Fischer tweeted "My Sister Paid @Progressive Insurance To Defend Her Killer In Court:" and linked to a personal story of his sister's death and the family's dealings with Progressive. It is, to say the least, a grim, technical inside look at the insurance industry and the sometimes mind-bending positions taken to reduce policy claims. From a more humanistic perspective, it's a backbreaking tale of human morality put through the meat grinder of profit and then chummed to frenzied lawyers.
Fischer tells the story of how Progressive fought his sister's estate to pay out the benefit on her policy against uninsured drivers, which the man who killed her certainly was. The gut shot in the story, Fischer writes:
"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."
As many, many commenters on the social web have noted in the ensuing outrage, this was really just an insurance company being an insurance company. Moving from Progressive to another auto insurer will not necessarily remedy the threat of this happening again.
But Progressive made everything worse when it used its main Twitter account (which boasts 11 customer service reps) to respond to numerous Twitter critics with the same canned message:
"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."
As Gawker wryly noted, "It doesn't help that Progressive mascot Flo's smiling face is next to each copy-pasted tweet." That's a reference to the "always happy to help" mascot's Twitter page, which features perky messages such as:
After gaining some grassroots traction, Hollywood screenwriter and cult geek figure Wil Wheaton took up the cause, writing, "If you're a Progressive customer, I hope you'll consider canceling your policy, and telling them why." Wheaton augmented the Progressive Twitter response in "a recording in Audacity that captures just exactly how the PRBot sounded." So far, it's been played over 12,000 times.
Interestingly enough, despite taking a stand about its "contractual obligations," Progressive has now deleted all of the tweeted responses regarding the case, leaving its most recent post: "Sunday yardwork-inspired poll: fresh corn or fresh tomatoes?"
This attempt to erase history has not really helped Progressive either. Users have continued to respond to the "Sunday Yardwork" tweet with derision.
Wheaton himself noted, "I'm sure that's going to work out really well for the company."
Progressive's Twitter feed isn't the only arm of the insurer's social media presence under siege. On cheery spokeswoman Flo's official Facebook page, wall posts are, at best, inhospitable and, at worst, unprintable on a family-friendly website. The wall of the brand's other official Facebook page is not faring much better.
Progressive is now entering Step Two of a brand PR nightmare, the day when the story moves from sites like Tumblr and Twitter to major media. As the sun came up in the US, the UK's Daily Mail had already done a full write up, adding the very Daily Mail-like touch of placing a picture of the dead young women smiling next to an image of smiling Flo, Progressive's iconic pitch woman. Numerous other publications in the US are soon to follow suit.
Progressive did not respond to Brandchannel's calls or emails. But it's probably in its best interests to start responding to somebody. Even though some sources like Consumerist.com have noted that this is not only a common practice, but also corrected some of Fischer's details about the case. But a few commenters and sites are not going to stem the bleeding. And while Progressive's case has opened an online discussion about how insurance works — with a lot of Progressive's competators also getting dragged into the mud — this disaster remains Progressive's alone.
Progressive PR sends along this official comment attributed to Chris Wolf, claims general manager:
"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"
It seems Progressive is taking a hard line and essentially denying Fischer's claim in its entirety. It remains to be seen if this approach will calm the outrage.