Citi Social Media Man Pans Progressive’s Handling of Twitter Scandal

In social media, doing nothing is sometimes better than doing anything at all. When it comes to social messaging and crisis management, that’s the sentiment of Frank Eliason, director of global social media for Citi. Eliason was referring to Progressive Insurance and its handling of a case involving a comedian’s sister – and the firm’s much-maligned social media response to the grave situation.

“There are tons of these scenarios that happen everyday now,” said Eliason, speaking during an Advertising Week panel in New York this afternoon hosted by LinkedIn. Before joining Citi, Eliason managed one of the first highly successful customer service accounts on Twitter, @ComcastCares.

In August, the brother of a Progressive car insurance policyholder who died in a car crash published a Tumblr post stating that Progressive “refused to pay the policy to my sister’s estate.” Progressive’s brand was tarnished by the post, which portrayed the firm as generally heartless. Comments about and links to the Tumblr post spread quickly across Twitter, prompting subsequent attacks on the insurance firm.

The company soon disseminated a statement on Twitter, as many firms might. A singular tweet – juxtaposed with a profile image featuring Progressive’s grinning, crimson-lipped spokes-gal Flo – was tweeted verbatim several times to separate individuals. Calling the case “tragic,” and expressing “sympathies,” Progressive went on to note: “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.”

“They tried to talk about it from their Twitter handle,” which Eliason suggested was a mistake because of its association with the Flo mascot. The response also failed from a business and legal perspective, implied Eliason. “[Progressive] set a precedent” that “if [a consumer] disagrees with you…[he should] take to social media” in the hopes of being awarded a court settlement.

The sterile response, and the firm’s seemingly cold approach to tweeting it over and over, with Flo smiling alongside didn’t help. Critics said the company looked like a “soul-less, lipsticked robot” – and much worse.

“I think they did what they thought was right,” said Eliason. “Progressive’s plan probably was they have to respond right away,” he added, noting that many brands react that way because they are taught, “that’s what you have to do in social media.”

Progressive might have stayed quiet at least for a day, he said. “Would I stay quiet for three days? No,” he continued.

Despite a variety of online comments and memes in response to the scandal that besmirched Flo and the firm she represents, Advertising Week named the apron-clad spokescharacter to this year’s Madison Avenue Walk of Fame.

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