PG&E, the company that evokes nightmarish images of Satan's lair for many San Franciscans after sparking the fire that killed eight and burned 38 homes, recently launched a $10 million multimedia advertising campaign to subtly quell the storm of Bay Area citizens.
In the company's most recent television advertisement, CEO Tony Earley admits that PG&E "lost its way" before he became head honcho of the gas and electric monopoly last summer. He doesn't linger on the subject, though; the ad quickly transitions to focus on how all is fine because "the people clearly haven't" lost their way. He continues by articulating how he and his 20,000 employees are dedicated to "bringing PG&E back" by providing reliable and affordable services.
So, what does "lost its way" mean for a utility involved in wrongful death investigations? And how does PG&E plan on finding its way again?
We posited this question to PG&E spokesman Joe Molica, and in so many words, he pinned the company's directional confusion on lack of communication with its clients. Although he touched on the San Bruno tragedy, Molica noted that this campaign was primarily a response to the company's customer surveys, which reported that "almost 90 percent of our [PG&E] customers wanted to hear more from us." He also emphasized that this campaign was about "taking accountability for the past." Better, but again, a bit unclear.
We asked to talk to the CEO directly, but Molica thought it was too short notice to ask for Earley's time.
However, Assemblyman Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) interpreted the phrase differently. When asked the same question, Hill responded, "the list [of how PG&E lost their way] is unending," but to him, the most egregious part was that "they've put profits over safety."
Mike Danko, one of the attorneys representing San Bruno blast survivors and their families, told the Chron that he thinks the gas and electric giant is just trying to win over the jury pool in the pending civil case, which is set for trial in October.
Molica pointed out that the company has genuinely tried to change its direction. When asked about specific services they're using to "bring PG&E back," Molica noted how the company has improved procedures and "implemented new technology tools ... [including] gas leak detection technologies."
But Danko argued that the company should repair its pipes before repairing its image. "Get their system up to speed. Get their system so it's safe. And there's no room until that's done for patting themselves on the back," he told the press.
The campaign, which is being funded by shareholders, marks the company's first massive stab at public relations since a gas-transmission pipeline erupted in September 2010, killing eight people and injuring 58, destroying 38 homes and damaging 70 more. The campaign aired during the company's current court cases, in which PG&E argues that its conduct in installing the defective pipeline that triggered the San Bruno blast doesn't merit punitive damages.
Hill also noted how this campaign aired at the same time that PG&E is asking the California Public Utilities Commission for permission to raise residential rates by more than 14 percent.
"It's all business to them," he said.
Since the explosion, PG&E has seen some serious backlash. The company faces hundreds of lawsuits from San Bruno victims and their families and millions of dollars in regulatory fines. Now, federal, state and local prosecutors are also pursuing criminal investigations into the San Bruno disaster, the Chron reports.
PG&E's television ad will run a few more weeks, and its radio spots will last through the end of the year.