Crisis Communication: Planning Ahead So You Can Go with the Flo

Flo, the Progressive Girl

This week has been a public relations nightmare for Progressive Insurance Company.  Headquartered in my hometown, many of my friends work for Progressive. Just a few days ago, I attended a Cleveland Indians game (we lost, big time) at Progressive Field.  I sat in a section filled with people wearing Progressive t-shirts and never once thought that the family-oriented people around me might be capable of the apparent mis-truth telling (to put it nicely) of which Matt Fisher is accusing them.  His well-titled blog post, My Sister Paid Progressive Insurance to Defend Her Killer in Courtwent viral this week, creating a public-relations maelstrom that threatens to permanently damage the Progressive brand.  Let me be clear: I am so sorry for both the Fisher’s tragic loss and the frustratingly sad re-living of the event that they had to endure during the trial.  We pay a great deal of money to insurance companies just in case of accidents, flooding, theft, etc. But having insurance is really just the illusion of protection. There are so many laws to protect insurance companies, so many contractual loopholes, that I have yet to find a way to benefit from my homeowners insurance. (“Sorry your pipes leaked inside your wall, but we don’t cover leaking pipes, only explosive ones”).  This post isn’t an insurance rant though – it’s about how Progressive could have reacted to Fisher’s accusations and better managed the story in social media.

Google “Progressive Insurance” right now.  Go ahead, I’ll wait…  After the paid insurance ads, you should see that the 2-5 items on the first search page are news stories with headlines like Progressive Is Inuman, and Online Post about Refusal to Pay Fatal Accident Claim Goes Viral.  This is the power of social media: in just a few days, Fisher’s post has received more than 11,000 comments, and a ton of media attention.  Because of one case, about 800 people are talking about Progressive right now on Facebook, with comments that run the gamut from “shame on you” to more engaging and potentially brand-killing posts:

And what does Progressive have to say for itself?  On their blog, Understanding Insurance, Progressive expressed sympathy and denied involvement with the defense of this case.  We may never know what the whole truth here.  But, Progressive dropped the PR ball here!  As the company was bombarded with accusatory Tweets, its social media team pasted and repasted the same few sentences to each concerned individual.  Wil Wheaton, former Star Trek actor, created a “Progressive PRbot,” mocking Progressive’s PR mishandling of the story.

When I think of Progressive’s marketing campaigns, two trends emerge. For years now, Progressive been transparent in its sales pitches – going as far as offering the quotes from several different competitors on its website so you could make an informed decision and compare prices.  Flo, the Progressive girl, resonated with customers and gave the brand a human face.  Combined, the transparency inherent in the brand and the popularity of its Flo campaign set the company for social media success.  So, what went wrong? Progressive failed to really listen to the complaints, to respond in kind on the platforms used to submit complaints, and to honestly admit their mistake (or at least the conflict of interest).    It could be argued that Progressive took too long to respond to Fisher’s original post.  Fisher blogged about Progressive Monday evening, and Progressive didn’t respond until 2:00pm Tuesday.  Whether it took that long for word to get back to Progressive that Fisher had taken his grievances public, or they knew about it but failed to realize how influential he might be, contacting him directly, perhaps even just paying his family the $760,000 may have saved the company money in the long run.  Things happen at lightening speed these days, and as communicators or managers, we are often forced to respond without the time to really think things through.  Being aware of potential reputation crises and having an action plan in place will help companies maintain better control of the story.

Crisis communication planning is a vital component of any social media strategy. It’s like playing the Worst Case Scenario game with your fellow employees.

Play this game with your co-workers as a team building exercise!

Just in case you are reading this from atop a tree you climbed to escape an elephant stampede only to find that there’s a hungry python slithering toward you, here are my tips for survival in the social media jungle:

Be prepared.  

  • Assemble all the players, with full support of your public relations and investor relations departments, marketing, and legal, asking them to develop a crisis communications plan that includes protocols for escalation of issues and lists contact information for heads of departments.  Document the plan(s) and make sure everyone has access them.
  • Consider developing a “dark” site that’s not live, but is ready to go in times of crisis when speed is imperative.
  • Practice!!!  Set aside a day every few months to run crisis drills where the team practices how to respond to brand-threatening crises and then evaluate the efficacy of your plan.

Listen, Listen, Listen!

  • Remember that in social media, the conversations will happen with or without you.
  • Routinely monitor the conversations developing about your organization online and identify potential issues.


  • Honestly and openly engage in conversations, and don’t shy away from the ones that may cast you in a negative light.
  • Admit mistakes.
  • Don’t repeat the same response to every complaint.  If people take the time to complain, they want their voices heard. PRbots don’t put fires out – they douse the flames with gasoline.
  • Respond in kind.  Address concerns on the channels in which they came to you (i.e., if your complaints come in Tweets, respond on Twitter).

Learn from Mistakes

  • We all make mistakes, but only some of us make those mistakes work in our favor.  Circle back after the crisis passes and ask (preferably with the same participants who helped design and implement your crisis communications plan): How did this situation get out of control?  What actions did we take? Did we follow our plan?  What would we do differently next time?

Note: Social media is fast! As I was writing this post, Progressive released an announcement indicating that it reached a settlement with the Fisher family.


2 comments on “Crisis Communication: Planning Ahead So You Can Go with the Flo

  1. […] Is your organization prepared to handle a crisis? Do you use boiler plate press releases? Are there best practices for crisis or disaster communication planning? […]

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