The ‘Master of Disaster’ shapes public opinion in Richmond and beyond
on October 31, 2014
The phone rang shortly after 6:30 p.m. It was a Monday night in August and Sam Singer was still at his office in downtown San Francisco, writing and brainstorming strategies for clients. He picked up.
The call was from the Chevron refinery in Richmond. They were, they said, “having an issue.”
The “issue” was visible as soon as Singer began inching across the Bay Bridge in rush-hour traffic. A massive column of black smoke was climbing into the sky and spreading like a wool blanket over the horizon.
One of Singer’s associates was already at the refinery by the time he arrived. Singer rolled up his sleeves and got to work with his team, becoming, as he put it, “extra arms and legs and eyes for the Chevron staff.”
He gathered details, asked questions and crafted messaging. He moved quickly and with practiced efficiency. That night, dressed in a tie and sporty white sneakers, he stood before a battalion of reporters at a press conference and introduced the refinery’s general manager, Nigel Hearne, with the jauntiness of someone introducing a stand-up comedian at a nightclub.
As Hearne, eyes pouchy with exhaustion, gave a brief update to reporters, Singer raced around passing out copies of Chevron’s official statement.
He stayed until 2 a.m. and was back at the refinery at 6 a.m., wearing new clothes.
The details, now familiar to people across the Bay Area, unfolded quickly over the next few days. A pipe in the refinery’s no. 4 crude unit had ruptured, causing a noxious cloud of hydrocarbon vapor followed by a massive fire. About 15,000 Richmond residents went to local hospitals for respiratory ailments. It was a public relations disaster for a corporation that has strained to maintain a symbiotic relationship with the city for over a century.
Singer, who has partnered with Chevron for nearly 30 years, makes his livelihood off of public relations disasters. He helms Singer Associates, Inc., a San Francisco-based PR firm that specializes in crisis communications for companies and public figures.
This was a crisis for Chevron, indeed, and not just for the financial costs. Richmond, a working-class Bay Area city of just over 100,000 people, had been a Chevron-controlled company town from the turn of the century until 2010, when progressive leaders won the City Council for the first time in the city’s history. Chevron had been fighting to take back the City Council with its own favored candidates – and now, here was this nightmare, mere months before the 2012 November election.
There was no denying that a fire had happened, not with black columns of smoke still fading into the sky.
So the spin that Singer helped to engineer became Chevron’s willingness to be entirely transparent, to be held accountable and to make amends.
“Our priority right now is containing the fire, and protecting the health and safety of our employees and our community,” Hearne said during the press conference on the night of the fire.
“Right now, safety is our number one priority. We will be transparent. As we learn things, we will share those immediately with the city, the county and the media,” said Mark Ayers, Chevron Richmond’s Chief of Emergency Services, a day later.
Several weeks later, the message evolved.
“To many of our workforce, Richmond is not just the place where they work, but it’s also the community they call home, and it’s where their family and friends live,” Hearne said at a media briefing, without mentioning that less than 10 percent of the refinery’s employees live in Richmond.
“That said, we did have a fire. And we will learn from what went wrong and take all appropriate corrective actions.”
In time, the burned refinery cooled and the soot dissipated across the region. Aside from the crude unit, refinery operations resumed. Both progressive candidates were defeated in their bids for City Council that November, and Chevron was successful less than two years later in getting the City Council to approve its ambitious, long-desired $1 billion plan to spruce up the aging refinery and make possible the processing of higher-sulfur crude – though approval of the project did come only after a promise of $90 million in community benefits.
Singer Associates doesn’t just handle crisis communications for Chevron Richmond. The firm also supports Chevron’s legal team in its 20-year battle in Ecuador, where the oil giant has been accused of polluting the Ecuadorian Amazon and devastating indigenous tribes.
The firm also employs the spokesperson for Moving Forward, the independent campaign committee into which Chevron has poured $3 million to swing Richmond’s 2014 municipal elections to its favored candidates.
And as Chevron comes under increasingly heated scrutiny for its repeated safety violations and efforts to win elections, Singer has affirmed his position as one of the most influential behind-the-scenes shapers of public opinion in the Bay Area.
FEW PEOPLE WOULD RECOGNIZE Sam Singer if they saw him on the street. But his job is not to have a memorable face – it’s to have memorable message.
On a recent weekday morning, Singer, 56, is a decidedly average white man in a black suit coat sitting outside of Espresso Roma in Berkeley’s Elmwood district. He has a large to-go coffee in one hand, a dog leash attached to a quivering Norwich terrier in the other. Singer is alert but still fumbling, trying to find a way to effectively wipe croissant crumbs from his hands while still remaining attached to the leash.
“I love my job,” he says, wiping and then putting down a greasy napkin. He has a gruff Midwestern-sounding farmer’s voice that complements his neatly parted grayish-blond hair. “It’s like being an elected official without campaigning.”
He chose Espresso Roma because he lives right up the way if you follow Ashby Avenue into the Claremont hills. Singer grew up in Berkeley, the son of two UC Berkeley professors, and went to Berkeley High School. It was at Berkeley High that he immersed himself in the student newspaper and found his calling as a newspaperman. He had grown up in the idealistic tumult of Berkeley in the 1960s and ’70s, when freedom of speech, and having a voice that people listened to, were some of the most profound abilities one could exercise.
After graduation, he landed a job at the Berkeley Daily Gazette as a copy boy, which was the only job available to him without the requisite years of reporting experience. He rose in the ranks and became a reporter for the Gazette and the Richmond Independent before going off to earn a degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
He became the editor of the Berkeley Daily Gazette in 1984, just in time to edit the last edition before the paper folded. The next year, he was fired from a post as managing editor of the Berkeley Voice.
Singer switched tracks, becoming press secretary to Nevada’s then-governor, Richard Bryan, during Bryan’s successful bid for the U.S. Senate. It was during that job that Singer found he was as good in front of reporters as he had ever hoped to be as a reporter himself. He enjoyed verbal sparring and learned that he could handily win arguments if he had solid facts to back himself up.
This was a skill he had picked up from his mother.
“Being 100 percent Irish, my mother could argue from dawn ’til dusk and never take a breath,” Singer says. “She was one of the best researchers I’ve ever known. I learned from her solid research, solid argument, and never giving up in battles against bad guys.”
Margaret Singer, who died in 2003 at the age of 82, was a professor emeritus of psychology at UC Berkeley and a world-renowned expert on brainwashing, having spent her career researching cults and indoctrination. She was a vehement anti-cultist and testified at over 200 trials, including against the Symbionese Liberation Army at the 1976 trial of Patty Hearst. Her profession earned Mrs. Singer dozens of death threats.
In that regard, her son is no stranger to controversy, neither in terms of his late mother’s profession nor his own. Singer readily admits that he is unfazed by others’ negative opinions about the work he does.
“I appreciate it when people don’t agree with me,” he says. “It makes me consider my position even more thoroughly. I enjoy an honest debate probably more than the next guy.”
Still, the most striking thing about Singer is how earnest he is, particularly for a man who spins messages for a living. Over coffee, he eats with his hands and feeds croissant to his dog, clumsily and without embarrassment. He enthuses about tribal art from Papua New Guinea and the Himalayas, which he and his wife – Sharon Rollins Singer, chief financial officer of Singer Associates – collect from ethnographic art museums from around the world.
When asked to describe himself, he pauses for a moment, and then says:
“I’m never working hard enough, even when I am. I’m a half-Catholic, half-Jewish Most Worried Man Alive.”
“I’m a very humble guy,” he adds. “I have very strong opinions but I’m humble. I don’t think the hubris that many people have does them or their clients any good.”
Despite Singer’s self-professed humility, his crisis communications work has by now earned him such industry nicknames as “The Fixer” and “Master of Disaster.”
Sam Singer is the guy to call when you’re in a mess; and if you call Sam Singer, you truly must be in a mess.
Those who know Singer say that his effectiveness as a PR professional comes on two fronts: from his background as a reporter, and from his deft understanding of people.
“Sam is good at what he does because he knows how reporters, editors and producers work,” said Chuck Finnie, a PR professional at San Francisco-based BMWL & Partners who has known Singer since they were both reporters. “He’s quick, he’s smart, and you don’t have to wait a week and a half for him to get back to you when you’re on deadline.”
Harvey Myman, Singer’s first editor at the Berkeley Daily Gazette and Richmond Independent, agreed that Singer’s instincts come from his reporting days.
“Sam’s rhythms are a newspaper guy’s rhythms,” Myman said. “There’s a focus and an energy and an enthusiasm. There’s nothing jaded about Sam. He doesn’t sit around with a drink and go, ‘These assholes, I’m taking their money.’ I trust him the way I trust my brothers. His focus is always to get ahead of your story. He’s not a guy who ever believes in hunkering down.”
Just as potent as Singer’s background in newspapers is his background as the son of a world-class psychologist and brainwashing expert.
“He gets it from his mother,” Myman said. “Sam has always been a very keen observer and understands people very well. I wish I was as good a listener as he is, ’cause he really doesn’t miss anything.”
SINGER CITES JOURNALISM as the starting point for any work that he does as a PR guy.
“Journalism has really been my life’s pursuit,” he said during a telephone interview. “We do the exact same thing, in many ways, that journalists do. We disseminate information, we write news, we’re interested in the three C’s – clear, concise and correct. The biggest difference between a pure journalist and a public relations agency is that we advocate our clients’ point of view, so we’re much more advocates than a traditional journalist.”
But even the idea of journalistic objectivity is changing, Singer said, as media becomes increasingly decentralized. Blogs, hyperlocals and independent press allow for more individual perspectives and points of view. In Singer’s opinion, the creation of the Internet is comparable to Gutenberg’s moveable type for what it has done for a revolution in communications.
“For the first time, you don’t have to be born a Hearst, a DeYoung, a Pulitzer or wealthy to start your own newspaper and to write about what interests you,” Singer said. “This is a revolution still in its early stages. The media, individuals and corporations have not even begun to realize its power and importance.”
One of Singer’s greatest coups so far in harnessing that power is the creation of the Richmond Standard, a community news website funded by Chevron.
Singer proposed the idea of a Chevron-funded news site to Mike Aldax, a former San Francisco Examiner crime reporter, late last year. The two first met when Aldax spoke with Singer for a story that Aldax was writing about the San Francisco Zoo, one of Singer’s clients. Singer’s proposal piqued Aldax’s interest for a number of reasons – chief among them, it would give Aldax the opportunity to realize a long-held dream of running his own neighborhood-oriented community news site.
“It would be your call, you would get to do the coverage you like to do,” Aldax remembered Singer telling him. “Just make sure you provide interesting, important information to the public.”
Aldax was a crime reporter who had started the Examiner’s crime section “Law & Disorder.” An admirer of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett (“I went pretty far to get an apartment that overlooked Dashiell Hammett Street,” he admitted), Aldax’s Law & Disorder was filled with language that swaggered across the page. Suspects and criminals became “slippery copper crooks,” “rapscallions” and “black-hearted miscreants.” But more than freewheelin’ stories of lawlessness, Aldax yearned to do the kind of vivid neighborhood reporting crackling in news sites like Bernalwood and Mission Local.
When Singer came along with the opportunity to run just such a site, Aldax accepted and joined Singer Associates’ payroll as a senior account executive. Aldax hatched the name Richmond Standard – a reference to Chevron’s early days as the Standard Oil Company – and became the site’s editor and reporter, a veritable one-man band.
But the idea of a news site funded by Chevron and edited by a PR agency employee has drawn ire from other journalists and cultural critics since the site launched in January. Media Matters accused Chevron of “using propaganda disguised as news to promote its corporate efforts,” and the Los Angeles Times’ Michael Hiltzik wrote that “this is what the news business has come to in communities where economics have wiped out traditional local newspapers.” With the Richmond Standard as a central case study, the Financial Times published a long article about “the invasion of corporate news.”
Singer brushes these criticisms aside by referencing one of the tenets long held by advocates of independent press: the necessity of alternative perspectives.
“There deserves to be many different voices in the discussion, none of them necessarily right or necessarily wrong,” Singer said. “The public gets the best opportunity to make an informed decision by listening to a lot of opinions.”
Singer is a believer in a “multiplicity of voices.” He sees his work as contributing to a greater number of perspectives – and in that vein, Singer says what he does is simply make sure that his clients’ voices are heard along with everyone else’s. He gives his clients, many of whom are deep-pocketed corporations, “a fighting chance to be understood.”
Much has been said, of course, about the dubiousness of the claim that a multibillion-dollar corporation like Chevron would need to fight to be understood. In the weeks leading up to Richmond’s city elections, media outlets from the Los Angeles Times to MSNBC condemned Chevron’s political spending to influence public opinion and election results, in what the media outlets say amounts to nascent plutocracy. But to Singer – who has taken on clients pro bono because he “believes in their cause” – power doesn’t necessarily rest with who has the most money, but with who can tell the most credible story. And if Chevron isn’t telling a convincing story, then his job is to help Chevron to become convincing.
“We tend to represent people who are underdogs in a particular situation,” he said. “And when you’re an underdog, it doesn’t matter if you’re the most powerful person or have the most money in the world – it means you’re at a disadvantage in that situation, and we represent underdogs.”
Myman, his old editor, is more circumspect. “Sometimes his clients are probably the good guys,” Myman said, “and sometimes they’re not.”
ON CHRISTMAS DAY 2007, a Siberian tiger escaped her enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo and attacked a group of young men, killing 17-year-old Carlos Sousa Jr. and mauling his two friends before being shot to death by responding police officers.
With no cameras or witnesses to testify to what had happened, questions rose immediately. How could the tiger have left her enclosure? What had gone wrong? There was a dead teenaged boy, a dead Siberian tiger, a trail of blood on the grounds of a family destination, and a clamor for answers.
The San Francisco Zoo hired Sam Singer.
Within a day of Singer’s arrival, a narrative took hold that the young men had been drunk and high on marijuana, and that they had provoked the tiger by taunting and throwing sticks at her. A few days later, a witness surfaced to say that she had been at the tiger enclosure with her family when she saw the young men taunting the tiger.
“There is a lesson to be learned from this terrible tragedy,” the San Francisco Examiner quoted Singer as saying. “Don’t drink alcohol, don’t smoke marijuana and don’t taunt man-eating animals.”
The zoo reopened to the public, with little fanfare, nine days after the incident.
The families of the young men ultimately settled a civil suit with the zoo, claiming “that public relations specialist Sam Singer ruined their reputations by emphasizing that they had been drinking and smoking marijuana before heading to the zoo that day,” according to the Examiner.
Five years after the tiger attack, ABC7 News reported that the San Francisco Zoo, “to the delight of many,” had adopted another Siberian tiger, who quickly became “one of the zoo’s most popular attractions.”
When discussing Singer, fellow PR professionals always bring up the tiger attack. The event was a literal beast of a debacle, every zoo-going family’s goriest nightmare come to life – and with Singer at the helm, the zoo seemed to have emerged nearly unscathed. The bulk of the public’s suspicion of wrongdoing turned toward the young men who had fallen prey to the tiger.
Singer’s PR messaging works in part because he has proven, time and again, that he is a reliable source for reporters working on breaking news deadlines. He is always immediately available, always happy to be quoted and has always done meticulous research.
“Sam understands what news is and how his clients’ needs and objectives fit into the definition of news,” Finnie said. “When he talks to reporters, reporters trust him. What Sam tells you adds up at the end of the day.”
The long list of Singer’s past and current clients include high-profile crises that have become the stuff of public relations legend.
Take, for example, Jack in the Box. When an E. coli outbreak from undercooked beef patties nearly bankrupted the fast food chain in 1993, Singer helped Jack in the Box become a leader in stringent food safety guidelines. Singer then followed up by helping to give life to “Jack,” the charmingly irreverent fictitious CEO whose smiling foam head soon adorned car antennas across the country.
More recently, Singer helped the City of San Bruno secure $70 million in restitution following a PG&E pipeline explosion that devastated a San Bruno neighborhood four years ago, killing eight people. He continues to represent the city in an effort to hold PG&E responsible for up to $2.5 billion in federal and state fines.
Part of what makes Singer compelling as a man-behind-the-scenes is that it’s never quite clear which strings he is pulling or how far his influence reaches. Singer himself is rarely willing to disclose his part in his firm’s public relations victories.
Back at the Berkeley coffee shop, Singer responds to a question about the role he played in Chevron Richmond’s crisis management, post-fire, by deflecting credit.
“Most all of the things that we work on, in particular with Chevron, are a team effort – a group of people who come up with good ideas.”
But he’s the only one who’s known as the Master of Disaster.
“It’s like being a quarterback on a football team. They either give you too much credit or too much blame.”
And with that, the Master of Disaster stands, crumples his napkin and gathers up his terrier. It’s a Wednesday and he has a standing meeting with city officials in San Bruno. He’s off to tell the underdogs’ side of the story.
Richmond Confidential is an online news service produced by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism for, and about, the people of Richmond, California. Our goal is to produce professional and engaging journalism that is useful for the citizens of the city.