Zoo’s Spokesman: PR veteran calms troubled waters for private clients, government agencies uneasy around media
By Robert Selna
The San Francisco Chronicle, January 7, 2008
For six days, San Francisco Zoo officials contending with fallout from the Christmas Day escape of a Siberian tiger and mauling death of a teenage boy seemed the picture of incompetence – incapable of providing even an accurate description of the dimensions of the wall the beast leapt over to get at her victims. The wall, it turned out, was 4 feet lower than recommended for such enclosures.
Then, last Monday, a story circulated in the national and international media that served to take some heat off the zoo and intensify speculation on the role the victims might have played in provoking the tiger.
The story, reported by the New York Post and based on an unidentified source, stated that brothers Paul Dhaliwal, 19, and Kulbir Dhaliwal, 23, who were at the zoo with the now-deceased Carlos Sousa Jr., 17, were in possession of slingshots at the time of the attack.
What’s more, an empty vodka bottle was found in the car the Dhaliwal brothers used to get to the zoo that day, the Post reported.
A source for that story is widely considered to be Sam Singer, a San Francisco public relations and crisis communications consultant belatedly brought on board by the Zoological Society, the nonprofit group that operates the zoo under contract with the city.
“He is spreading stories to anyone who will write them,” said attorney Mark Geragos, who represents the Dhaliwal brothers and said he plans to file a lawsuit against Singer on the brothers’ behalf for intentional infliction of emotional distress.
“I have never seen such an outrageous act,” Geragos said. “These victims were mauled and watched their friend die.”
Singer doesn’t deny pointing reporters to facts and rumors he’d heard in the course of the investigation – and the empty vodka bottle and other evidence of drinking and marijuana use on the part of the Dhaliwal brothers has since been confirmed by city officials.
“There are a number of rumors in any crisis, and that was one (the slingshot) that was already out there, and that is not something that I did,” Singer said. “Reporters have asked about rocks, slingshots, bottle rockets and taunting. Those are all things that San Francisco police are investigating, and that’s fact.”
For Singer, 50, kicking up some dust and taking some flak are just part of what goes with the territory as one of the – if not the – premier mouthpieces and spin doctors for companies doing business in San Francisco.
But what sets Singer apart is his success not only representing private business interests looking for help shaping their public images but also his place on the speed-dials of local government and quasi-government officials who apparently don’t feel capable of dealing with the media themselves.
His private clients include the San Francisco Bar Pilots Association, which turned to him after a container ship slammed into a bridge in November and spilled 58,000 gallons of fuel into San Francisco Bay; Gap Inc. founder Don Fisher, in his bid to develop a museum to house his modern art collection at the Presidio; Lennar Corp., in its push for a deal with San Francisco City Hall to redevelop Treasure Island, Hunters Point Shipyard and Candlestick Point; and the San Francisco 49ers, during their recently abandoned attempt to build a new stadium in the city.
Filling out the list is disgraced former California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, before his resignation as a result of a campaign finance scandal; the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, a regional agency with representatives from the mayor’s office and Board of Supervisors that is devoted to building a new downtown bus and rail terminal; Alex Tourk, the former campaign manager to Mayor Gavin Newsom who resigned after learning Newsom had an affair with his wife; and now the Zoological Society of San Francisco, which runs the zoo for the city of San Francisco.
Singer’s private- and public-sector client mix means that sometimes the interests of a corporate client – such as Lennar – is at least in part in the hands of one or more of his government clients – such as members of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority board of directors, which includes Newsom administration representatives and San Francisco Supervisor Chris Daly.
“People keep going back to him because he does good work and they trust him,” said Shelley, who resigned in 2005 after revelations that state grant funds he secured to develop a community center had apparently been laundered back into a Shelley campaign account by a Sunset District political leader, Julie Lee.
Lee faces federal fraud charges for allegedly illegally diverting taxpayer money into Shelley’s campaign account. But Shelley has never been accused of wrongdoing in the matter.
Part of why Singer is relied on by private and public interests alike is because of the chummy relations he has cultivated with reporters and columnists at the city’s major news outlets, including The Chronicle, and his understanding of how journalists work.
An up-close view
Singer who has two sons from his first marriage, lives with his second wife, Sharon, in Berkeley, where he was born in 1957. He attended Berkeley High, where he was editor of the school newspaper. He said he developed an interest in reporting while growing up in a household of storytellers.
His mother’s career as one of the nation’s pre-eminent experts on brainwashing and cults also allowed him to observe countless press interviews at the family home.
Margaret Singer, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, testified in the 1976 bank robbery trial of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst, who was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. She also helped reporters better understand the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church and other cults that were in the news at the time.
His father, Jerome, a physics professor, also at Cal, used to tell Singer about serving as a soldier in World War II and details about his ancestors. Singer said family tales helped him develop an interest in history, which has led him to assemble an eclectic range of artifacts, from old newspaper advertising signs to African tribal war shields.
Jerome Singer still works at age 86. Margaret Singer died in 2003.
Observing his mother debunk charlatans also equipped Singer with the skepticism that is essential to an effective journalist, he says.
After college at Tulane University in New Orleans, Singer began what he thought would be a career in journalism. He worked for East Bay daily newspapers – for some of the same editors he used to boast to about scoops while editing the Berkeley High School newspaper. During graduate school at Northwestern University, he briefly worked in Washington, D.C., as a TV and radio correspondent.
But when Singer came back to the Bay Area, he says, a dearth of reporting jobs sent him toward public relations. It wouldn’t be long before his career took off.
Affable but tough
Singer’s public relations firm, Singer and Associates, employs 15 people, and Singer charges clients more than $350 an hour for his services. The firm, which earned $5 million last year, is actually the second successful agency he has built.
In 1990, after the start in journalism and a brief stint working on political campaigns and for the California Democratic Party, Singer teamed with another young executive, Larry Kamer, and established Kamer/Singer Associates in San Francisco.
The partners complemented each other. Kamer was a behind-the- scenes strategist, and Singer thrived as a public advocate. The company quickly bagged big corporate clients, such as Nike, Jack in the Box, Chevron and the 49ers.
They sold Kamer/Singer in 1999 to a division of Grey Advertising in New York. A year later, Singer struck back out on his own with the goal of becoming the go-to public relations guy in the Bay Area.
Neither Kamer nor Singer says there was any bad blood that broke up their partnership, but there are hints of strained relations between the two men.
“He can be very charming and entertaining, but he is very hard- nosed,” Kamer said. “When it comes to business, there’s two sides to the man.”
A former employee of Singer’s remembered him as a demanding boss who jealously guarded the spotlight.
“He likes the cameras and doesn’t like to be surrounded by other folks who can challenge his status,” said the former employee, who did not want to be identified because he continues to work in public relations.
Singer conceded that he can be hard on his staff and colleagues but said he expects from employees what he asks of himself.
“I hold myself to high standards in terms of quality of writing, a tremendous sense of alacrity, and some style and verve,” Singer said.
Those qualities should be tested and on display in the year ahead, given the needs and goals of some of the public relations man’s clients.
Front lines in 2008
Lennar, the Miami-based developer building on a piece of Hunters Point Naval Shipyard and looking to expand its horizons to include the rest of property as well as Treasure Island and Candlestick Point, has a measure headed to the June ballot. In partnership with the Newsom administration, the company is seeking voter approval for a combined redevelopment plan for the shipyard and Candlestick.
Part of the project includes space for a new football stadium – which Newsom is betting on as a way to keep the 49ers (a former Singer client) from moving the team to play its games in Santa Clara.
The Transbay Joint Powers Authority, whose board members include Newsom’s Muni director, Nathaniel Ford, and his economic development chief, Michael Cohen, is paying Singer and Associates $325,750 over three years to help maintain public support for its plans for a residential tower and futuristic West Coast version of the Grand Central Terminal tying together regional bus and rail service at First and Mission streets.
Fisher, whose clothing fortune has been put to use amassing one of the world’s leading private modern art collections, is competing for the rights to build a museum at the Presidio to house and display the works. A decision by the Presidio Trust on whether to do business with Fisher or with proponents of a competing plan for a history museum is expected this year.
And then there is the zoo, run by Singer and Associates client the Zoological Society of San Francisco. Management of the zoo by the society is under close scrutiny in the wake of the Christmas Day tragedy. And the lawyers are circling.
For those who are paying close attention, Singer’s deft hand in managing a public relations crisis is already starting to show through – beyond last week’s efforts to spur speculation of the role of the victims in the tiger attack.
Also last week, when Geragos, representing the Dhaliwal brothers, accused zoo security of being too slow to respond, Singer attacked the lawyer’s credibility. “Anything that a defense attorney says has to be taken with not a pinch of salt, but a ton of salt,” he said, speaking for the Zoological Society.
And more recently, he dipped into the old PR bag of tricks that calls for giving special care to timing when there is information damaging to your client that needs to be released.
So, when zoo officials doing the postmortem discovered that the big cat grotto wasn’t the only enclosure with walls below recommended levels – that a wall at the polar bear’s haunt was also below standard – they let it be known when it was least likely to cause a big splash: late in the day on a Friday at the end of a holiday week.