PG&E Paid for Survey on San Bruno Blast Stories

Does PG&E really need a survey to find out what customers think of them?

SAN FRANCISCO—Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has spent shareholders’ money on a survey measuring the public-opinion effects of recent Chronicle coverage of the San Bruno natural-gas explosion and other problems for the utility, company officials say.

PG&E would not say how much the survey this month of 500 customers cost or provide details of what the market research firm that the company hired had asked.

“We want to know what our customers think about us, so we can communicate better with them,” said David Eisenhauer, a PG&E spokesman. “From what I understand about this survey, we wanted to know, ‘What is the impression people have of the company after reading’ ” The Chronicle’s articles?

“A responsible customer-centric company should always communicate with its customers to find out what’s important to them,” Eisenhauer said. “You’ve been telling us for months what our customers think. We thought we’d ask them directly.”

Eisenhauer said a confidentiality agreement with the company that developed the survey, which he did not identify, barred him from revealing the survey’s cost. The firm that carried out the questioning, Directions in Research of San Diego, declined to comment.

A pollster in San Francisco pegged the likely expense to PG&E’s shareholders at $35,000 to $50,000.

“It would have taken some time to structure that kind of survey,” said Shanan Alper, senior analyst for David Binder Research in San Francisco, which develops such opinion surveys but was not involved in the PG&E effort.

The Chronicle has written numerous articles over more than a year about gas safety issues and PG&E’s practices leading up to the Sept. 9, 2010, pipeline explosion in San Bruno, which killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.

In recent weeks, Chronicle investigations have focused on how PG&E secretly tracked the failure rate of a type of plastic pipe known as Aldyl-A, which was tied to recent explosions in Cupertino and Roseville (Placer County). The paper also reported that PG&E had stockpiled money that was intended to determine the pipes’ risk of failure.

Eisenhauer said the survey sought customers’ reactions to four Chronicle articles in September and October. He declined to give details or the results.

One customer who said she was surveyed, Elizabeth Tresslar of San Rafael, said, “First they wanted to know if I subscribe. Then they asked questions about each specific article, they quoted the headline and said the date, then asked if I had read the article and what I thought about the article.”

Then, she said, the survey taker asked how each article influenced her opinion of PG&E.

“I said that they were somewhat unfavorable,” Tresslar said. The stories “are laying out the facts of what is going on here – you can’t hide the facts.”

PG&E has come under criticism before for focusing on public relations. In June, a panel of outside experts hired by the California Public Utilities Commission to critique PG&E said, “There appears to be an elevated concern about the company’s image that may get in the way of concentrating resources on the most important things.”

The head of a consumer advocate group, The Utility Reform Network, said the survey about Chronicle stories was a good example of that.

“It is a complete waste of time when things are blowing up,” said group president Mark Toney. “They need to spend their time and energy in creating a safer system, not worrying what the newspaper is writing about them.”