Utility PR 101: Glossy mailers galore!

It's snowing PR!
Rebecca Bowe

PG&E’s public-relations playbook (“Defending Your Shareholder-Owned Electric Company Against New Municipalization Threats, authored by San Francisco PR firm Solem & Associates), Tab IV, Section 17, instructs: “Design and implement a direct-mail program.”

“A general rule of thumb is that a campaign should send at least three pieces of mail to targeted voters. Direct mail allows the campaign to target messages to specific voter groups. The research program will help you determine which messages are most effective for each targeted voter group. If your community includes ethnic groups with significant numbers that speak other languages, you may want to produce bilingual mail pieces.”

PG&E is obviously going whole hog on this one, as it has apparently felled a few forests in order to send out gigantic fold-out mailers communicating to voters that community choice aggregation is a risky plot crafted by “the politicians.” These portable billboards are glossy and colorful, and do not seem like they can be safely composted or burned.  The mailers repeat the phrase “fraught with risk,” which is coincidentally the No. 1 line in the playbook under Tab V, “Sample Campaign Messages.”

If the bilingual mailer that went out recently is any indication, PG&E’s PR consultants have determined that it’s important to target San Francisco’s Asian population, and that they are most likely to respond to pictures of giant microscopes. This mailer is about five feet long when you unfold it all the way, and it also features photos of Asian people peering through enormous magnifying glasses. The mailers seem to refer to “politicians” in the same way die-hard environmental activists talk about “corporations.”  


Isn't it illegal to take our money without our permission and use it for a campaign that we oppose? Unions are prohibited from doing this by Supreme Court decisions, and I don't see why that case law cannot be applied to this situation. If PG&E uses ratepayer money for its campaigns, we should be able to opt out and get a refund, just like union members who don't want their dues used for political campaigns.

Posted by Jeff Hoffman on Mar. 19, 2010 @ 10:10 pm


It's not your money. They are selling you a product and once you pay them, it's their money.

No different from a drug company selling you medication and then using that money to oppose health-care reform.

In fact, the recent ruling on the Citizens case in the U.S Supreme Court strengthens the ability of corporations to fund political campaigns by ruling that corporations have 1st Amendment rights.

However, the good news is that you can use the money that really is yours to oppose campaigns that you personally dislike.

But the decision about what P,G and E gets to spend its revenues on is their shareholders. So why not buy a share of P,G and E and then vote a Proxy to stop this?

Posted by Tom Foolery on Mar. 20, 2010 @ 7:42 am

Actually, Tom, PG&E is slightly different than a drug company. PG&E is a regulated utility; it's guaranteed a certain rate of return on investment by the state regulators, and because it's a monopoly, it has to follow different rules.

In Savage v PG&E, the California Court of Appeals ruled that a regulated utility does not have the right to deny access to press briefings to a reporter that the utility doesn't like. In essence, the court said that as a regulated utility, which is guaranteed a profit by the state, PG&E can't just behave like any other corporation.

I think Jeff has a point here, although legally the courts have also ruled that PG&E can use its shareholder's money to engage in political activities. So what PG&E is doing is legal, but barely.

Posted by tim on Mar. 20, 2010 @ 2:43 pm


Do you have the citations or at least names of cases that say that PG&E may use money for political activities? As I said in another thread, this might come down to whose money it is, shareholders' or ratepayers'. The shareholders' money comes solely from ratepayers, so one could argue that saying this is shareholders' money is just an illegitimate shell game.

Posted by Jeff Hoffman on Mar. 28, 2010 @ 8:48 pm

Just for the record, I quote from the California Appeals Court decision in Savage:

As authoritatively construed in Gay Law Students Assn. v. Pacific Tel. & Tel. Co. (1979) 24 Cal.3d 458 [156 Cal.Rptr. 14, 595 P.2d 592], Public Utilities Code section 453, subdivision (a), draws "upon the well-established common law doctrine that a monopoly is not free to exercise its power arbitrarily . . .." (24 Cal.3d at p. 476.) The court observed, "Since medieval times, the common law has imposed various obligations upon enterprises that exercise monopoly power to assure that such power is not exerted in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner. . .. [T]his . . . doctrine evolved into a broad common law principle which placed numerous obligations, including an obligation to avoid discriminatory conduct, upon enterprises said to be 'affected with a public interest.' [Citations.] [P] Although the outer boundaries of the 'public service enterprise' category have not been precisely delineated, in contemporary times a public utility, such as PT&T, undoubtedly constitutes a paradigm example of an enterprise 'affected with the public interest.' " (Ibid.)

"We recognize that a private corporation generally has unrestricted freedom in dealing with the press. But a public utility, occupying a significant monopolistic position over an essential public service, occupies an exceptional role. As stated in the Gay Law Students decision, "[i]n California a public utility is in many respects more akin to a governmental entity than to a purely private employer. In this state, the breadth and depth of governmental regulation of a public utility's business practices inextricably ties the state to a public utility's conduct, both in the public's perception and in the utility's day-to-day activities. [Citation.] Moreover the nature of the California regulatory scheme demonstrates that the state generally expects a public utility to conduct its affairs more like a government entity than like a private corporation."

Interestingly, the Appeals Court justice who wrote the case was Bill Newsom, the father of the current mayor of San Francisco.

The cite is 21 Cal. App. 4th 434.



Posted by tim on Mar. 20, 2010 @ 3:04 pm

On the face of it, i would probably vote against it, but the BG is so against it, I will probably vote for it

Posted by Guest on Mar. 21, 2010 @ 7:21 pm

What a brilliant comment and such a smart way to make an informed decision on a policy issue.

Posted by tim on Mar. 22, 2010 @ 10:15 am

and have a voters guide?

People using the Guardian to know how not to vote is the same thing as just tearing out the Guardians list of revealed knowledge on their way to the polls.

Posted by glen matlock on Mar. 22, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

I still get that crap from the SEIU and all the associated unions with a complaint and throw them all away.

We got a PGE one at work and I got a good laugh from it though, kinda clever logic really.

Who falls for that stuff? "Don't fall for the politicians power grab..."

Oh right, progressives do.

Posted by glen matlock on Mar. 22, 2010 @ 10:20 am


That's interesting stuff. But I still don't see what specifically prevents PG&E from funding ballot measures and politicians. Even you appear to suggest that is legal.

And surely if there is a cause that they should be allowed to support, it is something like this which, from their point of view, is about furthering the enterprise.

And perhaps it is precisely because they have been under such attack from public power advocates, that they feel their survival is at stake, which in turn causes them to try and give themselves some relief.

You are attacking them, they are defending themselves and the voters get to decide who wins. Isn't that the American way?

Posted by Tom Foolery on Mar. 22, 2010 @ 12:58 pm

What makes PG&E think they have the right to own their customers forever? They seem to think I belong to them. And they will use the money I paid them to keep me in place.

I did not elect PG&E to be my permanent power company. I elect my officials to make decisions about community issues. If they aren't making good decisions I can unelect them. PG&E is a vendor trying to act like a gangster thug.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 26, 2010 @ 3:05 pm

PG&E has been collecting its guaranteed profits for so long they have a massive sense of ENTITLEMENT. They are not interested in competing for our business, they are interested in owning us. Prop 16 has turned me from a passive complainer to an active anti-PG&E citizen. Way to go bozos.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 26, 2010 @ 3:06 pm

The mailers may not be compostable, but at least their printed with union labor. How about the Bay Guardian?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 29, 2010 @ 7:06 pm

Two things come to mid in defeating this garbage lying initiative (to say governments do not know how to run a utility, how many water users would say that or the entire City of Redding and their private electricity or another lie that we have no say on initiatives that locally spend tax payers money, what BS how many times has PG&E defeated such things time and again PG&E you are a liar)

First off if anyone knows of a law suit pending against PG&E they need our no support. That can be done with an amicus brief and the city attorney of San Francisco will help. Just make sure they also have your support on their latest gig the State of AZ boycott.

Second it will take effort and time to get a referendum together if this garbage passes. Anyone interested. I am a law student and have lots of legal resources. It is time to work on this while the iron is hot. The faster a referendum hits the ballot box the fresher it is in the minds of voters and the integrity of the referendum remains in tact.

Take action, take charge, make a difference.

Posted by Guest No on 16 on Apr. 26, 2010 @ 7:38 pm