Birthplace: Berkeley, Alta Bates Hospital
Astrological sign: Capricorn
First real job: Copyboy at the Berkeley Daily Gazette/Richmond Independent
Favorite pizza topping: Sausage and onion
Mideast peace plan: Create new economic and educational opportunities throughout the region to promote business relationships and educate the masses about the benefits of understanding and tolerance.
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What do you do if Mike Wallace is banging on your front door with a camera crew in tow? Call Sam Singer, of course. His clients have included the 49ers in their quest for a new stadium in San Francisco (he severed ties when they announced plans to defect to Santa Clara) and Jack in the Box during the E. coli scare that almost put the hamburger chain out of business. His current high-profile client is the San Francisco Zoo where a tiger tragically killed a patron last Christmas. Raised in Berkeley, Singer started out wanting to be a journalist and even forestalled his college education after high school to take a job as a part-time copy boy with the Berkeley Gazette in the late ’70s. Singer eventually earned a master’s in journalism from Northwestern and returned to Berkeley to edit the very last edition of the Gazette in 1984. In his next job he tried to turn the homespun Berkeley Voice into the Village Voice and got the axe. Realizing that his future may lie in public relations, journalism’s kissing cousin, Singer became a political operative for Democrats and eventually opened his own successful shop. I tracked Singer down recently for his take on the tiger attack and his profession in general and, not surprisingly, got more than an earful.
Paul Kilduff: All right, let’s get the tiger attack stuff out of the way first. As an unidentified San Francisco Zoo employee commented after the tiger attack, visitors should be able to walk around the big cat grotto with meat hanging off themselves and a tiger should still not be able to get out for a bite. If that’s the standard, does it really matter what the Dhaliwal brothers did or didn’t do to the tiger?
Sam Singer: I think the zoo actually met that standard. I think they met the walk-around-with-a-meat- suit standard and something unusual happened on Christmas day 2007 in this tragedy that basically removed that barrier of safety. If the three young men were walking through there and they simply walked by, that’s one thing. And I think that the standards of safety were excellent for 68 years. They had tigers larger than Tatiana in that enclosure. Larger, stronger. Something happened on that day that was so different and so unusual that the standards which have been good for almost seven decades suddenly were thrown out the door. . . I think if three men got in a car and they started driving—the car’s got lots of safety features on it—and those three men were high on dope, drinking liquor and were fooling around in the car and it was in a terrible accident and two of those men got hurt and one younger man was killed, how would we look at that accident? We’d look at that accident as whoever was driving that vehicle, which in this case my analogy is the brothers, and that they were at fault or somehow caused that vehicle to crash. Is it a tragedy? You bet it’s a tragedy. It’s the same tragedy no matter whose fault it is. No wild animal, no human being were meant to come together and the zoo did its best to prevent that. . .And the zoo lost a family member as well.
PK: So, just to play devil’s advocate here. . .
SS: Please. I’m a professional arguer. Ask away. It’s not going to make me feel bad. Believe me.
PK: Given Tatiana’s previous attack on a zookeeper, should she have even been in the zoo at all? And even just the antiquated practice of public feeding of tigers and lions in a lion house? There’s only one other zoo—in Philadelphia—that still does that.
SS: You know, tigers are wild animals and the zoo is full of wild animals and that’s part of its educational purpose. I’m not fully up to speed on what happened with the zookeeper who was injured by Tatiana previously. I know that’s the subject of a lawsuit. People will try to figure that out between the Zoological Society and the zookeeper. Zoos are about wild animals and about showing people the importance of natural habitat and preserving it. And the importance of preserving wild animals, like tigers. There’s a reason they call it “the wild.” It’s dangerous in the wild. Somebody from the Associated Press asked me the other day: is there a lesson to be learned from this? And I said, “Yeah, I think it’s a very simple lesson: Don’t drink and get drunk. Don’t smoke weed and get high. And don’t taunt man-eating animals.” It kind of reminds me of when my kids were really small and I went shopping and the Batman movie had come out. I went down to Toys R Us to buy them a little Batman outfit. And I picked up the box and there was a little warning and it said, “Warning. Wearing cape does not allow user to fly.” Well, if you have to put warnings up at zoos that say, “Animal eats man. Wild animal. Do not taunt,” because as some people would say there’s the “idiot factor.” Well, then that’s what the zoo has already done. It’s put signs up to make it absolutely abundantly clear that this is a man-eating animal. They need to be treated with respect . . .What happens if you’re wearing a meat suit and you get into the animal’s enclosure? What if you break the barrier that was there that kept you out? What if you disregarded all the safety features? Which apparently could be the case here.
PK: You started out wanting to be a journalist, but ended up in public relations. Some journalists call this going over to “the dark side.”
SS: Luke, you are my son.
PK: Any regrets?
SS: I have no regrets on the switch from journalism to doing public affairs and corporate communications. I really feel like I’m in the exact same business. I’m just on the opposite side of the coin. I started as a newsman and I’m still a newsman today. That’s what drives our business. That’s what our focus is. We’re in the information business. We’re providers of information to the public through the news media.
PK: You cut your media teeth at Berkeley High in the ’70s on the school’s paper, the Jacket. I can attest: a true pillar of journalism. Any highlights?
SS: We did daring things like selling massage-parlor advertising. If there was a rule, let’s break it. I learned a lot at Berkeley High and I just loved journalism. I was covering the Berkeley School Board meetings. We’d publish the Jacket and I’d run over to the Berkeley Gazette which was on Allston Way in those days and I’d show ’em where our coverage in the Jacket had gotten the finer points of those meetings and the details that they didn’t have. They’d kind of roll their eyes. But I think they enjoyed the journalistic camaraderie. When I got out, I went over [to the Berkeley Gazette] and I said to the editor, “I want a job. I want to be Ben Bradlee. I want to run the Washington Post. I’m going to start right here.” And he looked at me and he said, “Look, this is a Guild newspaper. These are big salary jobs and you have to come with five years experience before we give you a job like that, but I tell you what. There’s a part-time copy boy job.” And before he could finish the sentence I said, “I’ll take it.”
PK: How would you describe public relations work?
SS: Some jokingly say we’re a cross between Winston Wolf, you know, “I solve problems” from Pulp Fiction to sort of Michael Clayton as “the fixer” in the more recent movie. And there’s some truth to that, but what we really do is help people think about what their story is and we hope to tell it in the best possible manner.
PK: Is flack a term of endearment or do you find it derogatory?
SS: A lot of people in my business look at it as derogatory. I wear it as a badge of honor. I mean yeah, we catch some flak for our clients. I’m happy with the term flack.
PK: The self-proclaimed founder of public relations, Edward Bernays, was Freud’s nephew. Your late mother, Margaret Singer, was a very well-known psychologist and cult expert. How has this background in psychology helped you?
SS: If you’re a psychologist you have to be a good listener. I really learned to be a very good listener. To be very detail-oriented and to be compassionate to people who have problems. A lot of times when we go in, one of the things that makes us successful is we’re good listeners. We’re very compassionate in the way a good psychologist can be. And we’re able to give people insight into what their issues are and we reassure them that there’s light at the end of tunnel. When people are in the midst of a crisis they don’t see that light at the end of the tunnel and it looks very, very dark and bleak and the world’s going to end for them and that’s just not the case. But the great thing that I got from my mom and my father—my mother was Irish and my father was Russian—was the two great story-telling traditions.
PK: So, if a prospective client wants to stonewall during a crisis . . .
SS: I can’t be very helpful. Our job is to put information out there that provides a bigger picture so that people can judge for themselves what the situation really is. The zoo story, if you go back and look at the initial news reports, it was a tiger somehow escaped from its cage. Well, now you see that there’s a bigger, broader vision of what may have happened that day.
PK: One of your clients in the early ’90s was Jack in the Box in the wake of having some children get E. coli and die after eating there. The chain almost went out of business. What did you do to help the company resurrect its image?
SS: It’s a testament to them because they were really a thoughtful, caring corporation that really had a terrible thing happen to them and had hired two other agencies before they came to me. When we came in, their stock was like $2 a share. People were not going back. And we sat there and we looked at all the data we had in front of us and did some polling and tried to figure out what is the right thing to do. Well, the right thing to do was to take your greatest weakness, which was food safety, and turn it into your greatest strength. And Jack in the Box wound up leading the way in food safety and really became the bar that everybody else had to meet. That didn’t happen overnight. They were committed to food safety. They believed in it. They knew the tragedy that could occur to their patrons and they knew their very livelihood was on the line if they screwed up again. It was over. Chiat Day helped bring back the Jack character as a corporate guy and we got to do the public relations around bringing Jack back, reintroducing Jack as an irreverent sort of chairman of the board of the corporation. It was one of those moments you can look back on in your professional career and think you not only just changed people’s perceptions, but changed health standards in a very positive way for society.
PK: Let’s say Britney Spears called you up. Do you step up or do you back off in the interests of national security since our economy now seems to be in part based on Britney Spears gossip?
SS: Well, honestly I don’t follow the celebrity stuff that much. Occasionally we get called in to help high-profile individuals and some Hollywood stars. Most of our work is behind the scenes. The best way to project the image that you want is to actually possess that image. She has to figure out her life. It’s like my mom used to say when people would come in who had drug habits or who were alcoholics. She’d say, “You clean yourself up first. You get off the juice. You get off the dope. I’ll talk to you between now and then but I won’t really be able to help you all the way until you get yourself straight.” Even Dr. Phil himself cannot pull Britney out of the hell hole she’s got herself in unless she wants to get out of that hell hole and it certainly doesn’t look that way.
PK: In his memoir, Barack Obama is very up front about his drug use as a teenager in Hawaii. When this first came out I immediately thought of Bill Clinton in his first White House bid famously defending himself against dope-smoking charges by saying he didn’t inhale. Is Barack’s admission going to come back to haunt him?
SS: I think it was a strategic decision to inoculate himself against charges later on that would appear to be shocking—oh, my goodness he used drugs in college. Oh, God. Great thing about being from Berkeley is everybody assumes you inhaled. Nobody’s crazy enough to ask you the question.
PK: All right. I’m crazy enough. Did you?
SS: The entire town inhaled. If you didn’t you were at an oxygen tent at Alta Bates.
PK: We’ll use that quote. What about the Internet rumors that Obama’s a radical Muslim?
SS: I will say that the level of viciousness and vitriol on the Internet and the ability to do it anonymously is one of the most perplexing, shocking and deplorable things both on the Internet and in political campaigning. I wish people had the guts to put their names to what they say. I think it would stop the level of vitriol or at least reduce it because there’s just a whole lot of fear-mongering and horrible things that are completely untrue said about all the candidates.
PK: But it does bubble up to the surface. We saw this in the South Carolina Democratic debate recently in the slugfest between Hillary and Obama where she accused him of representing a slumlord and he said she was on the board of Wal-Mart.
SS: That was my favorite part of the debate. It’s like I’m going to poke you in the eye. Well I’m going to poke you right back in the eye.
PK: Every political campaign it seems like we hear the same hollow promises from candidates about how they’re not going to “go negative.” But, it always seems to happen. Is mudslinging just inevitable?
SS: Absolutely, 100 percent. Perhaps this is my view of the world because this is what I do but I don’t really look at it as negative campaigning at all. I really look at it as everybody trying to get their jabs in and have a level playing field. If Obama is going to attack Hillary as having sat on the Wal-Mart board, which to a liberal, progressive audience gives her a black eye politically, then she has to be able to come back and say, “Hey, wait a moment. While I was actually up there trying to make that corporation better you were down there serving slumlords.” All of a sudden it evens the playing field. If somebody hits you in a campaign you better be able to hit ’em back twice as hard.
PK: Wasn’t John Kerry’s weakness in ’04 failing to forcibly defend himself against the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth?
SS: The greatest tragedy from a Democratic perspective is John Kerry, who was a great candidate for president, was not a great campaigner for president. If there was one thing he could stand on with complete and utter resolve it was his war record, and if you can’t defend your honor thoroughly and completely and with conviction, and you don’t come back and you don’t kick George Bush’s ass with it, then even true-blue Democrats aren’t going to show up for you. I think people could have been swayed by him basically saying, “F—you George Bush. You never served in the war. I did. I saved people’s lives. I’m not a hero but I’m a soldier and that’s something you can never say, George Bush.” If he had done that, it would be a different America today and I think anybody who’s involved in my kind of business feels strongly that that’s what we all would have urged him to do. Take George’s head off. You can do it now cleanly and freely. By standing on your own record you can be openly critical of a guy who never lifted a finger for his country.
PK: But wasn’t he hamstrung though by his own actions—being specially let go by his commanding officer during the Vietnam War specifically to protest the war back home and being so public about it? I mean he even appeared on the Dick Cavett show in a debate representing the antiwar point of view.
SS: I think it’s perfectly explainable to be able to serve your country in battle and be a hero and then at the same time hold in another part of your brain, in another part of your heart, different feelings about the righteousness of that battle. He did what he had to do as an American soldier but he also did what he had to do as an American which was at the same time voice his opposition to what was going on over there. I would like the opportunity to explain that for him if I could go back in time.
PK: Edward Bernays once said that the manipulation of public opinion is a necessary part of democracy. Agree?
SS: I don’t believe that at all and I think that’s why I’ve never been a big Edward Bernays fan and I don’t really look on him as the founder or the father of public relations.
PK: What about as just the father of Bernays’ sauce? I mean, where would Eggs Benedict be without him?
SS: Edward Murrow was a great public relations person even though he was a professional journalist. He was a great public relations guy and he ended his career as the head of the United States Information Agency under the Kennedy administration, promoting America on an international level, and we need somebody with his insights, news skills and personality. The only way in this world that people are going to find you believable is if you share information, not if you hide information. If you’ve got a good story and you believe in your story you will win your fair share of battles—if you’re open, you’re honest and you tell a compelling story. In journalism school they always taught us the three c’s—clear, concise and correct. And in my business the only thing I add to that is the fourth “c” and that’s compelling.