San Jose Mercury News

‘Fixer’ Hired by S.F. Zoo is Well-Versed in Spinning Events

By Kim Vo
San Jose Mercury News, January 6, 2008

When bad news slams into this corner of the world, Sam Singer’s phone rings.

A wayward ship is leaking fuel into San Francisco Bay. The mayor slept with his friend’s wife, who is also a city employee. And, in the latest scandal transfixing the locals, a tiger somehow escaped her San Francisco Zoo enclosure and killed a San Jose teenager on Christmas Day.

Sam Singer, left, and Nick Podell, Chairman of the board of directors walk on zoo grounds before a press conference held at the San Francisco Zoo on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2008. Singer, of San Francisco-based Sam Singer and Associates, was recently hired by the zoo as a contract public relations personnel.

When the glare is bright and unflattering, Singer steps in. The area’s go-to crisis manager has a knack for deflecting the spotlight, or at least changing the bulb to cast his client in a more flattering light.

That’s not exactly how Singer, 50, sees it. His job, he said, is to don armor, then go out defending his client by simply telling the truth. His clients’ truth.

“This agency is in the news business,” said Singer during an interview in his San Francisco office, where a New Guinea war shield is propped behind his desk. “Our job is to tell our client’s news.”

His latest high-profile case is the San Francisco Zoo, which took a public drubbing after the tiger, Tatiana, attacked three people, killing Carlos Sousa Jr., 17.

Zoo Director Manuel Mollinedo initially said the tiger’s grotto exceeded safety standards — only to later admit the wall of the enclosure was four feet below recommendations. Transcripts released by the police revealed that on the night of the attack, zoo employees at first didn’t believe there was a loose tiger, temporarily didn’t let police inside the premises and disobeyed police orders.

“Zoo workers did not announce tiger escape, failed to follow rules,” headlines blared. “Brothers blame zoo in tiger attack.”

Since Singer’s company was hired Monday, the tone seems to have changed slightly. There is increased scrutiny on whether the brothers — Paul and Kulbir Dhaliwal of San Jose, who were also injured in the attack — might have provoked Tatiana. Police say the brothers won’t let them search their cell phones. More than a week after the attack, the San Francisco Chronicle interviewed a witness who apparently saw the brothers roaring at the lions in an adjoining enclosure, possibly taunting them.

The sudden appearance of a witness irked the Dhaliwals’ lawyer, who “accused the zoo administration and their newly hired crisis spokesman of ‘peddling unfounded rumors,’ ” according to the Chronicle. Attorney Mark Geragos did not return repeated calls.

Singer denies playing any role in that particular story. Then, almost as an aside, he dribbled some doubt on Geragos’ righteousness. “He’s a criminal defense attorney,” Singer said, then amended himself. “A self-motivated criminal defense attorney.”

The Berkeley resident is savvy about the Bay Area, where allegiances lie, what pushes people’s buttons. And he backs up his gut with research.

While working for the Bay Area Rapid Transit District during its contract negotiations, Singer conducted public opinion polls and discovered people liked union employees, but not necessarily union leaders.

BART officials parsed their comments accordingly, said spokesman Linton Johnson, always speaking respectfully of their employees no matter what was happening at the bargaining table with union brass.

Sam Singer, shown with a diagram of the new tiger exhibit at the San Francisco zoo, is regarded as a master at deflecting crisis.

“Sam is unbelievably brilliant at helping management bring the right message to people,” said Johnson, noting the agency has hired Singer — for tens of thousands of dollars — several times, including the latest 2005 negotiations. “He got down to the nitty-gritty about how people think.”

Political background

The polling strategy comes from his political days. After being fired as managing editor of the Berkeley Voice in 1985 (he wanted to make it the Village Voice, he said; his boss wanted a family paper), he went into politics, eventually helping then-Nevada Gov. Richard Bryan win a Senate seat, earning Singer the title “master spin doctor” from the Las Vegas Review Journal.

He turned down a press secretary job. “The Godfather” fan explained that he liked being a wartime consigliere, not a peacetime one.

He now runs Singer Associates, a multimillion-dollar outfit with more than a dozen employees, many of them former journalists and political campaign managers like himself. The firm mostly handles typical public relations gigs, but it’s the crisis calls that built Singer’s reputation. The Democrat relishes fighting for the underdog, whom he defines as anyone he’s defending. “When we’re working for them in a crisis, you’re the underdog.”

His so-called underdogs have included some big players. Singer worked for Denise DeBartolo York when she wrestled control of the 49ers away from her brother, Eddie DeBartolo. He helped California Pacific Medical Center when an employee falsely said he had injected people with HIV. He handled Jack in the Box’s hamburger contamination scare in the mid-1990s.

More recently, the San Francisco Bar Pilots Association hired him after a cargo ship bumped the bridge, spilling oil into the bay. And he was tapped to handle the media frenzy after San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom had an affair with his campaign manager’s wife, prompting the man’s resignation and igniting questions about whether the wife, a city employee, was improperly paid.

Touchy cases

That case was a delicate one, said Singer, who represented the couple, the Tourks. No one should ever have to answer such prying questions about their personal lives, he said. But once Newsom’s then-girlfriend (now fiance) Jennifer Siebel wrote a rambling online post blaming the woman, Ruby Rippey-Tourk, for the affair, Singer went on the attack. They would forgive Jennifer Siebel this one lapse in judgment, he told reporters, “Apparently she is just visiting this planet.”

He gleefully recounts that episode. The political junkie and ex-journalist in him enjoy a good quip.

But the biggest case, he said, is always the one right before him. A former zoo board member, he wants people to feel the zoo is safe. Victory in this battle means the zoo is vindicated and doesn’t lose visitors or funding or have the city dismantle the public-private partnership that governs it.

He explains this while leaning back in a red leather club chair. An assistant pokes her head in: The Los Angeles Times is on the phone. She returns a few minutes later. A reverend is on the phone.

The news is swirling. The phones keep ringing. Singer gets to work.


City: Berkeley

Nickname: The Fixer

Family: Wife Sharon; two twin sons, Nick and James; two stepsons, Alexander and Ben

Hobby: Collecting tribal art, especially from New Guinea, Tibet and the Himalayas. Wants to go to Papua New Guinea, but fears malaria

On his desk: A “Ten Ways Dick Cheney Can Kill You” mouse pad

On his bookshelf: Political and newspaper mementos, books by his mother, the late Margaret Singer, a University of California-Berkeley psychologist and cult expert. Also collects newspapers weights — which hold down stacks of the papers at the newsstands. He long coveted one from the Village Voice, but no one would sell him one. One day, he stole one, wrapping it in paper and walking away.

Childhood goal: Editor of the Washington Post. “Everyone wanted to be Woodward and Bernstein. I wanted to be Ben Bradlee. I wanted to be the editor. I wanted to marry Sally Quinn. I wanted to be in charge.”

Politics: Democrat. When he was 10, he participated in a local campaign for Bobby Kennedy. Volunteers washed car windshields, then added a flier reading: “Now that you can see clearly, vote Kennedy for president.”

Home life: Given his talents, does he talk his way out of trouble at home? “When I walk into the house, it’s like one of those old sci-fi movies: my power is no good on this planet.”