The lawyers vs. PR: Has Progressive Insurance learned anything?

By: Susan Finco, President, Leonard & Finco Public Relations, Inc.
There’s been a firestorm over how Progressive Insurance handled a claim filed by the estate of one of its customers who was killed in an accident with an underinsured driver. It all started with a blog post by comedian Matt Fischer which was titled “My Sister Paid Progressive Insurance to defend her killer in court.”  It was a brutal portrayal of Progressive as a cold, indifferent and strictly bottom-line oriented firm willing to do just about anything to avoid paying out a claim. The company made matters worse with its denials, half-explanations about the situation and its robotic approach to responding to social media. (Posting the same corportate-ese statements time after time.) 
Based on our extensive experience in crisis PR, my guess is part of the problem was two-fold.  First, it’s not unusual in crisis situations to have the lawyers at odds with the PR people. The lawyers, rightfully so, want to protect the company by saying as little as possible.  The PR professionals, rightfully so, want to communicate in order to protect the company.  In a crisis situation, communication is king.  Skilled PR professionals know emotions generally trump facts, so you have to respond in a caring and authentic manner.  Often what’s legally right isn’t always right from a communication standpoint.  It’s a balancing act.
The other part of the challenge is social media.  You can’t wait hours to respond and you cannot seem mechanical and cold.  If your company has a high profile through advertising, marketing or simply company size, you have to live your brand or people will take you to task.  Progressive’s approach made matters worse.
Progressive has now reached a settlement with the Fischer family.  While they may have things worked out on that end, people don’t quickly forget.  It’s going to take Progressive a lot longer to re-establish its relationship with the public at large, some of its client base and with the social media world.
What do you think Progressive could have or should have done differently?  Any thoughts on handling a social media firestorm?