September 20, 2004
Sam Singer started out as a tenacious journalist in Berkeley, CA, working hard to get – and tell – the story. Andrew Gordon learns that Singer now applies that drive to PR as president of Singer Associates.
Sam Singer’s defining moment may have come early in life.
Singer – born and raised in Berkeley, CA – was the editor of Berkeley High School’s student newspaper and found that the competitive and cutthroat nature of journalism came naturally.
‘I covered school-board meetings,’ says Singer, president of public affairs firm Singer Associates, based in San Francisco. ‘I’d run in the day after the meetings to the Berkeley Daily Gazette (the city paper) and show them that I had beaten them on stories at the school board from the night before.
Singer’s exuberance and persistence eventually landed him a job at the paper right out of high school, first as a copy boy, then as a reporter six months later.
Ambition has served Singer well in his career. He now runs one of the pre-eminent public affairs shops in the Bay Area and, perhaps, the West Coast. During his career, he has handled communications for a Bay Area hospital after a 2-day-old baby was kidnapped, spearheaded another medical center’s communications program in response to an HIV-tainted-blood scare, worked with fast-food chain Jack in the Box to respond to a food-poisoning outbreak, and helped Nevada in opposing a nuclear-waste repository near Las Vegas.
Singer’s career began in the era of such journalists as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. He admired the muckrakers and liberal reporters of that time. Journalism was a natural outlet for someone who wanted to change the world and who believed in good public policy and good government, he says.
Getting involved in politics and the community are a fact of life in Berkeley, then and now. Singer recalls stuffing envelopes for a local congressman and walking precincts for Bobby Kennedy’s Presidential campaign during his youth. And with two parents who taught at the free-speech movement’s birthplace – UC-Berkeley – Singer says he couldn’t help but be infused with his hometown’s energy and spirit. His mother taught psychology and his father, physics. But Singer says that the politically charged time and role of journalists in that era helped shape his views and ambitions.
After a short stint on the East Coast at college and as a TV reporter, Singer got his first taste of public affairs when he returned home at 26 and took the managing editor position at the Daily Berkeley Gazette, which the owners were planning to sell or shut down.
‘The paper lasted about a month,’ says Singer with a laugh. ‘Very few people have been a newspaper editor at 26, but it’s always been a bit of a feather in my cap that at that age, I handled the closing of a paper.
It helped me later in my career because I helped companies communicate during plant closures and layoffs, such as Levi Strauss. So I had some great experience as a young man about how hard it is to tell people their jobs no longer exist, while at the same time keeping your credibility and understanding the emotions involved.’
Twenty-four hours after the newspaper closed, Singer received a job offer from Solem/Loeb & Associates to help manage local political campaigns.
The move from journalism to public affairs and consulting was an easy adjustment, as it was just different sides of the same coin. ‘If you can understand the news business from one side, you can understand it from the other,’ he explains.
‘Sam’s a straight shooter,’ says San Francisco Chronicle political columnist Andy Ross. ‘He’s good at shaping an argument for his client. And he retains a sense of humor. He doesn’t take himself so seriously that it impedes what he does. He communicates on a human basis. If he knows you’re coming after his client, he can generally keep positive communication going. He doesn’t take it personally. He came out of newspapers, so he knows the job we have to do.’
After three years of local and statewide politics, Singer developed a reputation that led him to run communications for many statewide and national campaigns. But despite offers to join the political staffs full time, Singer decided he wanted to thrive as his own boss.
Singer says he’s better ‘at being a wartime consigliere than a peace-time press secretary.’ He prefers the trenches of controversy and adversity.
‘I’ll always take the position of the underdog over the person in power,’ he says. ‘Win or lose, the underdog has the opportunity to make some very good points. If you make them good enough, you win more often than not.’
So Singer teamed up with Larry Kamer, whom he met on one of former California Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy’s campaigns. The two opened public affairs shop Kamer-Singer & Associates, combining news and political skills on behalf of clients. They sold the firm to GCI Group in 1999, at the very pinnacle of the market, says Singer. Singer hung around for about a year, but missed the culture of a smaller firm. He left in 2000 to start Singer Associates, where he now works with the likes of everyone from ChevronTexaco and Calpine to the San Francisco Ballet and the 49ers.
‘Sam is a very bright individual,’ says 49ers owner John York, whom Singer helped during a bitter battle with the team’s former owner in 1999. ‘He often sees either problems, opportunities, or solutions that the average businessman might not see on his own. (And) he is able to deliver solutions to the problems he sees in a very down-to-earth way.’
But don’t let Singer’s gregarious and affable demeanor fool you. Singer says he’s at his best when he’s getting his hands dirty in the trenches.
‘I get the same high running a PR agency that I got in the newsroom,’ says Singer. ‘At the paper, everything was a deadline and a struggle. You had to wring information out of people at a moment’s notice and then tell that story to the public. That’s still true today. And I find adversity and controversy refreshing because they keep you sharp. So I’m always up for the struggle and the fight.’
2000-present: Singer Associates, president
1999-2000: GCI Group/GCI Kamer-Singer, president/West Coast MD
1990-1999: Kamer-Singer & Associates, president/CEO
1987-1990: CA Democratic Party, press sec. (1987); NV Gov. Richard Bryan’s Senate campaign, comms director/press sec. (1988); LA’s DA Ira Reiner’s campaign for CA attorney general, campaign manager (1989-1990)
1984-1987: Solem/Loeb & Associates
1984: Berkeley Daily Gazette, managing editor
1983: Medill News Service/CBS News, correspondent; Earns his masters from Medill School of Journalism
1979-1982: Tulane University, BA graduate: Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude in philosophy
1977-1979: Berkeley Daily Gazette/Richmond Independent, news reporter.