Breaking Tradition, Inertia Reaps Reputation Rewards for PG&E

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. had three strikes against it in 2001: Deregulation of utilities had forced rates to skyrocket, and its corporate reputation had suffered a blow as a result; the company was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy; and the statewide energy crisis certainly wasn't helping matters. So when the state mandated that all investor-owned utilities significantly and rapidly increase enrollment in a discount energy program for low-income residents, PG&E had serious work to be done. The utility's external affairs department launched a crusade to increase enrollment in CARE (California Alternate Rates for Energy) that resulted in a whopping 100 percent increase in participation. Getting there meant admitting the department's own weaknesses, changing longstanding internal practices company-wide and developing a sweeping creative campaign that would reach low-income users from every walk of life. Getting Help "We always did everything in-house," says Guillermo Rodriguez, director of external affairs for PG&E. Educational campaigns and outreach programs were always handled by the in-house communications staff. But given the attention from regulatory bodies and from the community, Rodriguez decided to make the first of many breaks from PG&E tradition: "We needed expertise and help. Going out and asking for help is not something we do well." Nonetheless, Rodriguez turned to Hill and Knowlton's Los Angeles branch of the diversity communications group. H&K had recently worked on a similar campaign targeting uninsured Latinos in Arizona. The utility had about a month to work with H&K to develop a campaign that would aim to double its participation numbers for CARE. The team knew the approach would have to be multi-faceted: potential target audiences included customers who spoke English, Spanish, Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), Vietnamese, Russian and Korean. The population also included various backgrounds, from African-American, single moms to Native Americans living on reservations. PG&E and H&K began developing collateral materials for all those audiences and recruiting community-based organizations to serve as partners. The partners would offer enhanced credibility with these audiences, who typically viewed PG&E and other utilities with distrust. Internalizing Outreach As the team made progress with the collaterals, however, PG&E realized the outreach effort would require tremendous change internally. It would have to address all the operational barriers to entry for low-income customers. In the past, the process for enrolling in CARE through PG&E was highly bureaucratic. Customers were forced to submit copies of bill stubs, tax forms and other information to certify that they were eligible for the program. With audiences already wary of the utilities and of sharing private information, the application alone was often enough to discourage them from applying for discounted rates. Rodriguez and his team worked to persuade other departments within PG&E that a CARE customer could sign one document stating that he or she was eligible for the program. Eventually, they won their colleagues over, and now CARE customers sign one form with the knowledge that PG&E conducts a more thorough screening with a random sample of customers. Rodriguez also encountered hurdles when he pushed for a new 800 number for the CARE program. "Traditionally, we brand one toll-free number, 800-PGE-5000. But our fear was that there would be so much traffic to this number" that customers would encounter burdensome waits, or not get the attention they needed. Rodriguez also succeeded in convincing PG&E to launch a new number, 800-PGE-CARE, which included more language options and customer service targeted to the CARE customer. PG&E has partnered with more than 90 community organizations to help enroll new customers. These partners are offered what Rodriguez calls "a bounty" for every completed application. "I wanted to make sure part of the money went back into the communities we served." Within the first six months of the program, enrollment rates were up 22 percent, and enrollment is now up 40 percent. Breaking through the company's inertia and finding ways to change internal processes to meet the needs of CARE customers resulted in a whopping 144,000 new customers, increasing overall participation by more than 100 percent. (Contacts: Rodriguez, 415/973-4725; Raul Garza, H&K, 323/966-5700) Campaign Stats Timeframe: 2001 Budget: PG&E was given a budget between $3.5 million and $4.5 million by the state. That sum, however, includes much more than PR. For example, with thousands of new applications coming in, the utility had to expand its employee workforce. Multicultural issues also contributed to a need for more employee support: "We needed help when the media would call and say we want you to come on Cantonese radio." PG&E still has not reached the level of CARE penetration its competitors have reached - before they implemented the new PR campaign, "they were cruising closer to 55 miles per hour, and we were at five miles per hour" in terms of enrollment. But PG&E is making definite headway: Due to its willingness to make changes internally and look outside its in-house resources for PR expertise, PG&E enrolled more customers than any sister utility in the CARE program during 2001.

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