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Progressive Insurance's Twitter PR Nightmare

Tuesday, 14 Aug 2012 | 8:04 PM ET
Scott Ellis | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Progressive Insurance's chipper spokesperson has a big headache.

A blog post from comedian Matt Fisher entitled "My Sister Paid Progressive insurance to defend her killer in court"— has gone viral. There were nearly 16,000 negative tweets about Progressive just yesterday — that's up nearly 50,000 percent from a week earlier, according to General Sentiment, a firm which tracks social media chatter.

And the sentiment, the company said, is decidedly negative, with people throwing around terms like "horrific, despicable, and evil" when talking about the insurance firm.

Why the outrage?

Fisher said his sister, who was insured by Progressive and killed in a car accident by an under-insured driver, had to pay for her killer's defense in court.

Basically, Fisher states in his blog post that after Progressive failed to pay his sister's full claim, her estate was forced to take the issue to court, where he alleges, Progressive actually defended his sister's killer in order to minimize its liability.

Progressive sent CNBC a statement saying it did not serve as the attorney for the defendant, but that the defendant's insurance company Nationwide did. The insurance company says it respects the jury verdict in favor of Fisher's family and is working with the family for a resolution.

But as people attacked Progressive on Twitter through Monday and Tuesday morning, Progressive simply tweeted out the same message to every inquiry, accompanied by a photo of its smiling spokeswoman: "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."

The problem: no matter what Progressive says now, those negative tweets are still out there, weighing on the company's image. The fact that the company repeatedly tweeted out the same response seemed to draw even more frustration for what Gawker.com called a "robotic" approach.

When it comes to crisis management, expert Eric Dezenhall said that social media is more often the problem than the solution.

"Social media is an attack vehicle for your critics not a communications 'opportunity' for those under attack. Social media inherently favors the critic not the target. Attacks on social media resonate and sting. Defenses look cold and mechanical. You simply cannot put compassion into a tweet," Dezenhall said.

Here's the link to Fisher's blog.

Progressive's statement:

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, Progressive

Statement from Matt Fisher:

Today, in response to my blog post entitled “My Sister Paid Progressive Insurance to Defend Her Killer In Court,” Progressive released a statement saying that “Progressive did not serve as the attorney for the defendant” in my sister’s case. I am not a lawyer, but this is what I observed in the courtroom during my sister’s trial:

At the beginning of the trial on Monday, August 6th, an attorney identified himself as Jeffrey R. Moffat and stated that he worked for Progressive Advanced Insurance Company. He then sat next to the defendant. During the trial, both in and out of the courtroom, he conferred with the defendant. He gave an opening statement to the jury, in which he proposed the idea that the defendant should not be found negligent in the case. He cross-examined all of the plaintiff’s witnesses. On direct examination, he questioned all of the defense’s witnesses. He made objections on behalf of the defendant, and he was a party to the argument of all of the objections heard in the case. After all of the witnesses had been called, he stood before the jury and gave a closing argument, in which he argued that my sister was responsible for the accident that killed her, and that the jury should not decide that the defendant was negligent.

I am comfortable characterizing this as a legal defense.

I wrote about this case on my blog because I felt that, in the wake of my sister’s death, Progressive had sought out ways to meet their strict legal obligation while still disrespecting my sister’s memory and causing my family a world of hurt. Their statement disavowing their role in this case, a case in which their attorney stood before my sister’s jury and argued on behalf of her killer, is simply infuriating.

— By CNBC's Julia Boorstin

Questions? Comments? MediaMoney@cnbc.com

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  • Working from Los Angeles, Boorstin is CNBC's media and entertainment reporter and editor of CNBC.com's Media Money section.