PG&E drops $10 million to regain public trust 

click to enlarge Mea culpa:  Above: PG&E’s reputation took a major hit after a pipeline blast that killed eight people and destroyed dozens of San Bruno homes in 2010. - GETTY IMAGE FILE PHOTO
  • Getty Image File Photo
  • Mea culpa: Above: PG&E’s reputation took a major hit after a pipeline blast that killed eight people and destroyed dozens of San Bruno homes in 2010.

PG&E — the utility responsible for the deadly and destructive 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno — wants to earn back your trust.

A television spot that began airing last week depicts CEO Tony Earley openly admitting that he took the helm of a company that had “lost its way.”

The candid acknowledgement from Earley, who joined the utility just last summer amid recriminatory fallout from the tragedy, is being bolstered by a $10 million advertising campaign recently launched by the utility. It is reminiscent of a memorable campaign by Domino’s that conceded the historically low quality of the company’s pizza.

PG&E spokesman Joe Molica said the decision to run such ads across television, radio and print platforms came from independent research showing that the utility’s customers “wanted to hear about tangible examples of progress” toward reform.

“Tony said that for a specific reason — to take ownership,” Molica said. “We have taken ownership with San Bruno, and with other issues in the past.”

But that didn’t always seem to be the case, with PG&E originally deflecting some of the blame in last year’s court cases over the blast that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. The utility’s legal assertions didn’t square up with the perceptions of its critics, who lambasted the company for simultaneously taking out full-page newspaper ads apologizing for the disaster.

Ultimately, a National Transportation Safety Board investigation in August 2011 found that the company was squarely responsible for the death and destruction because of its “lax system of oversight.”

The new campaign also includes a ticker on the front of PG&E’s website showing figures such as the number of people that PG&E employs and the number of miles of gas pipeline it has inspected so far in 2012.

The ad spots — which Molica said are being funded solely by shareholders and not the utility’s ratepayers — are scheduled to run on television for the next month and on radio starting this week. Newspaper ads will appear in August, he added.

Sam Singer — one of the Bay Area’s most visible public relations and crisis management experts, who did some work on behalf of the city of San Bruno against PG&E last year — said the campaign will be mildly appreciated, but it could be too little, too late.

“It’s a start, but it’s not enough,” Singer said. “I would say that PG&E is arguably the most damaged corporate brand in America today, because they blew a town up.

How many companies have that happen to them? It was a terrible tragedy.”

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Dan Schreiber

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