The acrid plume billows skyward from the blazing Chevron refinery in Richmond and gathers into an ominous black mushroom cloud looming over the troubled East Bay city. Hundreds of thousands of area residents are ordered by police and safety personnel to flee indoors. Health officials beseech the homebound to hermetically seal themselves within via duct tape and damp cloths. Emergency rooms are, predictably, besieged with 15,000 wheezing locals these MacGyver tactics fail to protect.
Firefighters swarm the burning refinery. Firefighters of a different sort are already working behind the scenes.
Employees of Bay Area public relations maven and damage-control expert Sam Singer are mobilized on behalf of their client, Chevron, even before ash begins settling on East Bay windshields. They toil through the night, amassing every last news clipping on the Aug. 6, 2012, incident. Damage control is well under way before actual damage has been even marginally controlled.
Observers the world over absorbed the images of an accident-prone refinery suffering "a catastrophic pipe failure" and, for the third time since 1989, going up in smoke. Singer's task, for this and every job, is to offer the public "a multiplicity of voices" in hopes of framing a narrative more to his clients' liking. Burdened with the irrefutable scenario of the Richmond refinery once more immolating the neighborhood, Singer extended the velvet glove with his narrative: Chevron is a great company that gets it; it's willing to pay for its honest mistakes and make things right for its hardscrabble neighbors.
The ex-newsman knows the value of spooning out favored information to the media. Singer refers to this as "feeding the beast." Fail to feed the beast and it forages for things Singer's clients may not wish for it to find. Feed the beast, however, and it eats what they want — and seeks out Singer as a reliable source of sustenance.
Two years after Chevron transformed Richmond into a soot repository, its city council in June unanimously approved the company's long-desired, $1 billion plan to modernize the refinery — a deal larded with community handouts for the locals subject to its periodic eruptions. Chevron earlier agreed to disgorge $2 million in penalties to ameliorate half a dozen criminal charges stemming from the blast. Singer's beneficent Chevron narrative seems to have carried the day. He's not at all surprised: People will make the "right" decisions, provided they receive that all-important "multiplicity of voices." It certainly never hurts to be the loudest voice.
(That $2 million, incidentally, represents the operating revenue Chevron amasses roughly every five minutes.)
"It's almost a cliché in our world," says a longtime city politico with a laugh. When something blows up, "You better call Sam Singer."
When your workspace is engulfed in flames; when your mistress threatens to reveal your illegitimate family; when your restaurant serves up E. coli burgers; when your employees inadvertently kill a young child; when a wild beast rampages through your place of business — you better call Sam Singer. "When things go bump in the night," assures Singer, "we are there."
Sam Singer's own voice is distinctive and mellifluous; it attests to his long-ago gig as a cub TV reporter. He wears a uniform of sorts: a blazer, checkered shirt, woven tie, capacious jeans, spotless white sneakers — and an ever-present smile. It's the outfit of a younger man from a different era; Singer is 56, but he's hardly hung up on it. It actually takes him several moments of mental gymnastics to tabulate his age. He has, colleagues say, not mellowed over the years. This is a mixed blessing: "Sam is extremely energetic and optimistic and always willing to believe the best of everyone — even his clients," sums up a fellow consultant. "And is he as likely to throw a punch as when he was younger? Oh yeah. You hire Sam Singer to have a fight."
Sam Singer loves to fight. There's not much about his work he doesn't seem to love. He has a lucrative job at which he excels and which instills him with joy. He exudes happiness. His daily demeanor recalls a dog chasing a squirrel. Spend time around Singer, and it's hard not to have some of that delight rub off on you.
Unless you're the squirrel.
Right around the turn of the millennium, Larry Kamer received a nasty, late-night phone call from his longtime partner Sam Singer. This wasn't surprising. The high-flying San Francisco PR princes' decadelong professional marriage was on the rocks and headed for divorce.
In the good ol' days, Kamer and Singer had walked Jack-in-the-Box back from a food poisoning abyss, cleaned up Nike's international sweatshop image problem, and allowed Levi Strauss to shutter the majority of its North American facilities while remaining an American icon. "We were a regional firm, but we were getting national-quality work," Kamer recalls.
Success beget success, which beget petty, personality-driven squabbling.
"Larry," hissed the voice on the other end of the line, "Every time you start a fire for me, I'm gonna piss on it and put it out." Dial tone. Kamer thought this was all a bit mysterious.
The next morning, at his office in Kamer-Singer Associates' New Montgomery Street suite, Kamer discovered a large, foul-smelling wet spot on the wall-to-wall beige carpeting. He had the offending hunk of carpet excised, hauled off, and replaced with a patch.
A patch that never quite matched: "I always knew it was there," Kamer says. So did everyone. This story trickled around San Francisco's political and media circles for years, a guaranteed laugh line and an illustration of just how aggressive San Francisco's most aggressive flack would be when he felt personally encroached upon.
And yet, this tale represents more than legions of happy hour raconteurs ever knew. Because, as is the case with so many things relating to Sam Singer, it has a complex relationship with the truth. The truth, after all, isn't exactly Singer's milieu. His mission is to push "the facts as our clients see them."
This phrase apparently induces your humble narrator to, inadvertently, squirm in his chair. Singer responds with a Mephistophelean grin. He's seen that before. "You bristled. So many journalists do."
In this town, there are plenty of people who bristle. There are plenty of people who say vile things about Singer. But it's more of a challenge to unearth someone who'll call him an out-and-out liar. That'd be missing the point. "Sam drinks the Kool-Aid and that way he serves his clients better," says a former employee. "I followed Sam's lead and I drank the Kool-Aid, too." Adds a longtime government official, "Sam believes what he says. But he doesn't make any bones about the fact he's being paid to say it."
So, Singer says, "decorum" prevented him from pissing on a rug that, after all, he co-owned. "Decorum," however, didn't rule out buying a bottle of Heineken, marinating Kamer's office with it, and passing it off as urine. In the end, that worked out even better. "This goes to my belief that a good mindfuck is as good as the real thing," he says, beaming.
And this belief is a longstanding one.
In junior high, Singer would often arrive home after school to find a person whose name he would never learn yammering away in the kitchen. His mother, Margaret Singer, was an in-demand psychoanalyst. She believed therapy shouldn't be embarrassing; nobody should take on the stigma of going to some highfalutin' office for sessions. Patients sat down and talked to Margaret at her unpretentious kitchen table in the Berkeley hills.
The kid raiding the refrigerator in the background never gleaned who these people confiding their strange fantasies to his mother were. But he did pick up a lot about how to deal with them. From his mom, Singer says, he learned how to be "a hand-holder." This is why he elicits a skill for comforting a distraught CEO who knows his philandering-spurred divorce will ding his company's stock price and irk his shareholders.
But that's hardly all Singer learned from his mother. Her turn as an analyst was just a side gig. Margaret Singer's real work was serving as a UC Berkeley professor and expert on the inner workings of cults. She testified on behalf of the defense in the 1976 Patty Hearst "Trial of the Century"; she subsequently railed against the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, the Rev. Jim Jones' People's Temple, the Branch Davidians, and legions of other predatory, messianic outfits. The persistent and unchallenged narratives made by powerful manipulators, she wrote, broke men and women. This was the case with both American prisoners of war and cultists throughout time.
By the time of her death in 2003 at age 82 — she outlasted decades of death threats and related incidents, such as the release of dozens of live rats into her home — Margaret Singer was considered one of the world's leading authorities on brainwashing.
And, so, it's more than a bit jarring to hear her son boast that inducing journalists to adopt the narratives he's carefully framed — even parroting his exact words — "is a rush that's similar to sex and drugs and music."
This is not lost on Singer. But, in the self-narrative he carefully frames, he's appropriated his mother's lessons for only the noblest ends. Rather than limit the general public to one version of the truth, his work on behalf of accused corporate bad actors and alleged criminals provides the aforementioned "multiplicity of voices" necessary to allow people to make up their minds. Singer puts forth that he has co-opted the techniques of brainwashing to actually prevent brainwashing.
Well, that's a novel description of the role of a public relations specialist. A multiplicity of voices can, in this line of work, provide reasonable doubt of a client's guilt or culpability. But, more ominously, when one narrative — let's say Singer's client's preferred one — drowns out the others, that mitigates the concept of a multiplicity of voices. Then things begin looking a bit more like the situations Margaret Singer spent a lifetime researching.
And that extends to Singer's personal narrative, the one he tells your humble narrator. And himself. In Singer's view, there's no discrepancy in his relentless defense of his client, Chevron, when it blew up the city of Richmond, and relentless attacks against PG&E for two years prior blowing up another client — the city of San Bruno.
These are the facts as Singer sees them.
The city of Lata, the provincial capital of the Solomon Islands' Temotu province, is not much of a city at all. Located on the island of Nendo, it is home to 550 people, an irregularly served airstrip, and a similarly languid post office. It is one of the world's more remote locales.
And yet, in the early days of January 2008, the flickering image of Sam Singer was beamed onto its television sets. The news of an enraged tiger on Christmas Day leaping out of its enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo, killing a boy, and savaging several patrons in a horrifying frenzy before expiring in a hail of police gunfire was that big.
Most stories involving escaped zoo creatures are, by definition, atypical. But Singer's subsequent campaign to clear the zoo's name is a textbook example of his aggressive style.
And this, too, Singer learned from the master. In a 2002 San Francisco Chronicle feature, 80-year-old Margaret Singer shared tumblers of Jameson's Irish Whiskey with reporter Kevin Fagan and gleefully recalled using the "necktie takedown" to pull a thuggish hockey fan to the ground before stomping on his face. "Damage control is putting fires out," says the younger Singer with a chuckle now. "But making fires for your opponents is a far nobler goal."
San Jose brothers Kulbir and Amritpal Dhaliwal were mauled in the encounter with Tatiana the tiger that left their 17-year-old friend Carlos Sousa dead. Then things got nasty.
The first task Singer undertook when summoned by the San Francisco Zoological Society was to search for dirt on the Dhaliwal brothers. It wasn't hard to find. In the coming weeks, he'd push stories about the ill-fated zoo visitors drinking, smoking pot, and behaving badly prior to the lethal encounter. But that would come in due time. Singer's opening gambit was to suggest a subtle but powerful signage change when the zoo reopened on Jan. 3. Visitors to the park on that day were greeted by written instructions urging them not to tease the animals.
"We threw ourselves a softball," Singer admits. "We knew journalists would ask if they taunted the animals. And we'd say 'We don't know, but we have enough information that we believe it was a possibility.'"
Then the stories about booze and pot and hooliganism managed, somehow, to find their way into the press. "And that gave credibility to our signage," Singer says. The narrative had shifted: The cinematic terror of a zoo's catastrophic failure gave way to queries about the character of the men nearly done in by the escaped tiger — and what they surely must have done to bring this misfortune upon themselves.
The Dhaliwal brothers were kindling for Singer's incendiary tactics. Both had a litany of run-ins with the law prior to their confrontation with Tatiana the tiger — and this continued afterward as well. When they retained high-profile attorney Mark Geragos, Singer lampooned him as the man who said, "Michael Jackson was a perfectly normal human being and Scott Peterson was an innocent man." The Dhaliwals' subsequent lawsuit personally accused Singer of libel and slander. "That," Singer says now, "was so much fun for me."
His focus on the alleged culpability of the mauled brothers certainly kept the focus off things his client would rather not see come up.
In the end, the zoo settled with the Dhaliwals for a purported $900,000. Terms of its settlement with Sousa's survivors were not made public — but, SF Weekly is told, the total payout in both cases is on par to what Chevron doled out for torching Richmond. Asked for a valediction, Singer whooped to a reporter, "Don't get high on weed, drunk on liquor, and don't fuck with man-eating animals."
Well, those are the facts as Singer's client sees them.
And, in this case, says Singer, society at large seemed to make the "right" choice. In the court of public opinion, the Dhaliwal brothers were the guilty parties in the tragedy that left them at the mercy of an inexplicably free zoo creature. Anyway, San Franciscans seemed to be more put out over the shooting of a rare and beautiful animal than the Dhaliwals' plight or the death of their companion.
Of course, few now recall that the brothers never copped to taunting Tatiana, which was the cornerstone of Singer's narrative. The tiger enclosure, since reinforced, was 4 feet shorter than the recommended height for such a pen. But, Singer stresses, these aren't "rules"; they're "guidelines." A source close to the matter tells SF Weekly that, in fact, generations of city workers maintaining the FDR-era grottoes "solved" persistent drainage problems by simply slapping down layer after layer of concrete, thereby effectively raising the floor.
When asked if a taller enclosure might have kept Tatiana away from the Dhaliwals, Singer replies, "I never speculate about what I don't know."
Maybe, he then speculates, they would have fallen in.
These are, to put it mildly, mitigating factors. But the narrative that took hold was the one spoken the loudest — even if, given a modicum of thought and divorced from the emotional heft of the moment, it makes little sense. "It would have been a regular day at the zoo if two men who were high on liquor and dope hadn't taunted a tiger," Singer sums up. "Bad deeds led to the death of a young man and a rare tiger."
But being inebriated and — purportedly — razzing a zoo creature shouldn't trigger a potential death sentence. For you or the innocent kid tagging along with you. No amount of uncouth human behavior ought to exculpate the zoo when an animal escapes its pen and kills people. But that's how Singer reframed the story.
And a brilliant one it is, even now. You don't have to believe it for it to be believable. Or at least convenient: A city official nodded in agreement when all of the above points were recounted. Then he grinned: "They were fucking with the tiger. And that's why they got eaten."
The Financial District office of Sam Singer's 14-year-old solo venture, Singer Associates, somewhat resembles an elegant, oversize set closet for the film Jumanji. Employees hunch over keyboards while bookended by massive wooden spears and shields and African masks. Tribal art is around every corner, socked into every office and every cubicle.
Amassing tribal art, Singer says, "keeps me balanced and sane." He frequents Paris galleries every September to add to his burgeoning collection. With tribal art, "you don't need a lotta words," he says. This artwork, he continues, "tells a story."
Telling stories is all Sam Singer has ever wanted to do.
Singer's parents were both UC Berkeley professors. His father, 94-year-old physicist Jerome Singer, is still working five days a week on "4-D technology," per his son. Like his late wife, Jerome is a Nobel Prize nominee.
Their son barely made it into college.
At 18, Singer was an honest-to-goodness copy boy for the Richmond Independent in the chain-smoking, Underwood-pecking, bourbon-drinking era of journalism. For the next eight years, he worked single-mindedly toward becoming a newspaper publisher. He achieved this goal, taking the reins of the Berkeley Daily Gazette — two weeks before the paper folded in 1984.
So, that lifelong dream died at the moment of realization. But, personally and professionally, Singer is malleable. He doesn't allow a disaster to linger past one news cycle. He soon leaped into political consulting — where speed and aggression are de rigueur — and in 1990 shifted into PR, where he could still tell stories. "You get to be your own newspaper!" he gushes, defining his current raison d'être. "You are making and shaping the news to someone's betterment and providing a service to the media, public, and elected leaders."
This, again, is a novel way to describe public relations. But Singer still gets to do what he loves, and now does so in a field in which success puts one into a tribal art tax bracket.
In this and other ways, Singer's life has not gone according to plan. He has, on several occasions, had much personal damage to control. But perhaps never more than that day some 15 years ago when his then-wife walked past the room he would later befoul with a bottle of beer, and into Singer's office.
His then-wife had previously learned that Singer had reconnected with a former girlfriend (who is Singer's current wife and company CFO. At the time, both she and Singer were married to other people). What followed would lead to an intriguing newspaper item.
A number of Singer's possessions were jettisoned into the street and, in a none-too-subtle allegory, all of his neckties were sliced into pieces. As if this couldn't be any more awkward, Singer's then-wife worked alongside him (and Kamer, and Kamer's wife) at Kamer-Singer.
All of this was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle's Phil Matier and Andy Ross. Singer, as he would for a client, dutifully returned their call. The self-styled "fixer" and "master of disaster" earns his keep by spinning away others' tragedies with "Who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"-type chutzpah. But, confronted with his own misdeeds, then and now, he's alarmingly frank.
Sometimes, that's the best strategy: "If you admit what you've done wrong quickly, you can make things go away and get a lot of credibility with the press and public because you're not bullshitting."
So, Singer copped to it all. But, he implored Ross, do him one favor. His twin boys were in grammar school. It would be hurtful for them to read about this. They'd be belittled. Keep his name out of it.
Ross agreed. Also, he tells SF Weekly, Singer wasn't so big a name back then.
Well, that worked out grand for everyone. "It was a good story for Matier and Ross," Singer says. "It didn't hurt my kids. It didn't hurt me professionally." His former wife "is better off without me. Of that I have no doubt."
One week after being symbolically castrated, Singer arrived, intact, at the Public Relations Society of America luncheon. The incident was all anyone talked about. No one had any idea the victim was walking among them.
Singer, presumably, bought a new tie for the event.
Asked his MO, Sam Singer quips that perhaps the most important element of damage control is "throwing the Molotov cocktails back at 'em." He has built his career on this strategy. That's how he turned a $19 billion judgment against Chevron for befouling pristine Ecuadorian rainforests into an assault on that nation's legal system and the character of the plaintiffs' legal counsel.
But playing with fire is a dangerous game.
Singer insists he didn't crash the December 2013 press conference held by the grieving family of Jahi McMath. The 13-year-old's survivors were imploring Oakland's Children's Hospital, a Singer client, to not pull the plug on the girl after a botched surgical procedure left her brain dead.
He is rather lonely in his assessment. Singer's colleagues in the public relations world say he absolutely did crash the McMath family's presser. And they applaud him for it.
Whatever the case, a vituperative back-and-forth broke out between Singer and McMath family attorney Christoper Dolan, as herds of media members looked on. "I backed him into a TV truck," Dolan crows.
But a diversionary brawl is just what Singer wanted. He portrayed Dolan throughout the case as a charlatan preying on the hopes of a distraught family unable to cope with the finality of brain death. Dolan, for his part, has since claimed he won't participate in or profit from any subsequent McMath family suits against the hospital. But the Molotov cocktail had been launched.
Singer came off as the heavy. He conspicuously referred to McMath as "the body of Jahi McMath." It was not always a good look for him. But for his client? That's a different story.
"Oh, that could have rolled on for months and months. Sam had to get into all of those stories and he had to do it right away," says political consultant Ace Smith, a Singer adversary turned friend. "It was Sam's job to take the bullet on that one before it reached his client. The wrong response wouldn't have killed him so much as the long response."
And that may ultimately mark the success of Singer's narrative. It's par for the course that happy announcements are reserved for company spokespeople, and tragic or controversial ones fall upon Singer. And there's nothing happy about Jahi McMath, who remains brain dead, purportedly in a New Jersey facility. But McMath has faded into memory. She has been reduced to one more thing that went bump in the night.
In Singer's professional life, he does, on a grand scale, what we all do personally: We construct narratives to portray ourselves in the best possible light; to buttress our strengths and ameliorate our shortcomings. He certainly does this for his clients; he doesn't mind being the villain, if being the villain pushes the narrative where he wants it to go. But does he do it for himself? Is this story, the one you're reading, the true tale of Singer's life? Or is it the truth as Singer, his own first and last client, wants you to see it?
"Singer says what he thinks regardless of truth," snarls archenemy Dolan. But Singer's truth wasn't the same as Dolan's truth. And, in the end, Singer is playing by a different set of rules: He traffics not so much in truth but the perception of truth.
Our frequent acceptance of his perceptions has made him a success. But Margaret Singer's son knows all too well that no one holds a monopoly here. When presented with other versions of past events that differ, wholly and diametrically, from his own recollections, Singer acquiesces quickly.
"Well," he admits, "That may be true."
Sam Singer's niche as disaster's remora is a bit paradoxical. The more he's viewed as the man to call when you've well and truly wandered into a minefield, the more potential clients grow wary of appearing to have wandered into a minefield. "There's a perception that, when Sam's involved, someone is really fucked," sums up a competitor. "There are a lotta people who likely would hire him, but figure it'd telegraph they're in deep trouble."
Singer's necktie takedown approach is not for everyone. "If anything, I am too aggressive," he admits. "I tell clients right at the beginning, if you think it's too much, tell us. It's not gonna hurt our feelings." Even still, says a former employee, there are would-be clients who avoid Singer: "There is the notion he cannot be controlled."
Along with tribal art, Singer's office is brimming with newspaper ephemera. As a young man, he hoped to be a part of this world. As a middle-aged PR man, he hand-delivered client-friendly copy to a sainted, deceased San Francisco Chronicle columnist with the same last name as a northern French city. ("He was real bad with facts," Singer explains.) But that media world is dying: In California there are now more than five times as many PR specialists spinning the news as professional reporters reporting on it.
Now the salvos are fired by paid partisans, internet amateurs, or a combination of both. The attacks come fast and furious and without the quaint benefit of a printing schedule.
A hired gun who will fight back quickly and ferociously is more valuable today than ever. And, in the near future, Singer may not even need to hand-deliver stories to journalistic third-parties. Four decades after starting up at the Richmond Independent, he started up his own Richmond paper. But it's hardly independent.
Singer poached former Examiner scribe Mike Aldax to run the Richmond Standard. It is, in essence, a community newspaper covering community issues in a woefully under-covered community. "Washington Post says Richmond rappers helped birth 'syrupy, trunk-rattling tunes'" reads a recent headline. "The rappers," Singer says, "they love us!"
The Standard, however, is underwritten by Singer's client Chevron. The stories about rappers and cops talking a man down from a ledge and Warrior Harrison Barnes' youth clinic are community journalism. The stories about Chevron are overt company boilerplate. Even still, the online paper is, largely by default, Richmond's paper of record. It may yet become city residents' go-to source the next time duct tape and damp cloths are called for.
"You can be your own Gutenberg. You can tell the story exactly the way you want to," Singer says with delight. After all, "You do need that multiplicity of voices."
Singer laughs. He seems serenely happy. There will always be something to go bump in the night. There will always be damage to control. There will always be another fire to put out.