The acrid plume billows skyward from the blazing Chevron refinery in Richmond and gathers into an ominous black mushroom cloud looming over the troubled East Bay city. Hundreds of thousands of area residents are ordered by police and safety personnel to flee indoors. Health officials beseech the homebound to hermetically seal themselves within via duct tape and damp cloths. Emergency rooms are, predictably, besieged with 15,000 wheezing locals these MacGyver tactics fail to protect.
Firefighters swarm the burning refinery. Firefighters of a different sort are already working behind the scenes.
Employees of Bay Area public relations maven and damage-control expert Sam Singer are mobilized on behalf of their client, Chevron, even before ash begins settling on East Bay windshields. They toil through the night, amassing every last news clipping on the Aug. 6, 2012, incident. Damage control is well under way before actual damage has been even marginally controlled.
Observers the world over absorbed the images of an accident-prone refinery suffering "a catastrophic pipe failure" and, for the third time since 1989, going up in smoke. Singer's task, for this and every job, is to offer the public "a multiplicity of voices" in hopes of framing a narrative more to his clients' liking. Burdened with the irrefutable scenario of the Richmond refinery once more immolating the neighborhood, Singer extended the velvet glove with his narrative: Chevron is a great company that gets it; it's willing to pay for its honest mistakes and make things right for its hardscrabble neighbors.
The ex-newsman knows the value of spooning out favored information to the media. Singer refers to this as "feeding the beast." Fail to feed the beast and it forages for things Singer's clients may not wish for it to find. Feed the beast, however, and it eats what they want — and seeks out Singer as a reliable source of sustenance.
Two years after Chevron transformed Richmond into a soot repository, its city council in June unanimously approved the company's long-desired, $1 billion plan to modernize the refinery — a deal larded with community handouts for the locals subject to its periodic eruptions. Chevron earlier agreed to disgorge $2 million in penalties to ameliorate half a dozen criminal charges stemming from the blast. Singer's beneficent Chevron narrative seems to have carried the day. He's not at all surprised: People will make the "right" decisions, provided they receive that all-important "multiplicity of voices." It certainly never hurts to be the loudest voice.
(That $2 million, incidentally, represents the operating revenue Chevron amasses roughly every five minutes.)
"It's almost a cliché in our world," says a longtime city politico with a laugh. When something blows up, "You better call Sam Singer."
When your workspace is engulfed in flames; when your mistress threatens to reveal your illegitimate family; when your restaurant serves up E. coli burgers; when your employees inadvertently kill a young child; when a wild beast rampages through your place of business — you better call Sam Singer. "When things go bump in the night," assures Singer, "we are there."
Sam Singer's own voice is distinctive and mellifluous; it attests to his long-ago gig as a cub TV reporter. He wears a uniform of sorts: a blazer, checkered shirt, woven tie, capacious jeans, spotless white sneakers — and an ever-present smile. It's the outfit of a younger man from a different era; Singer is 56, but he's hardly hung up on it. It actually takes him several moments of mental gymnastics to tabulate his age. He has, colleagues say, not mellowed over the years. This is a mixed blessing: "Sam is extremely energetic and optimistic and always willing to believe the best of everyone — even his clients," sums up a fellow consultant. "And is he as likely to throw a punch as when he was younger? Oh yeah. You hire Sam Singer to have a fight."
Sam Singer loves to fight. There's not much about his work he doesn't seem to love. He has a lucrative job at which he excels and which instills him with joy. He exudes happiness. His daily demeanor recalls a dog chasing a squirrel. Spend time around Singer, and it's hard not to have some of that delight rub off on you.
Unless you're the squirrel.
Right around the turn of the millennium, Larry Kamer received a nasty, late-night phone call from his longtime partner Sam Singer. This wasn't surprising. The high-flying San Francisco PR princes' decadelong professional marriage was on the rocks and headed for divorce.
In the good ol' days, Kamer and Singer had walked Jack-in-the-Box back from a food poisoning abyss, cleaned up Nike's international sweatshop image problem, and allowed Levi Strauss to shutter the majority of its North American facilities while remaining an American icon. "We were a regional firm, but we were getting national-quality work," Kamer recalls.
Success beget success, which beget petty, personality-driven squabbling.
"Larry," hissed the voice on the other end of the line, "Every time you start a fire for me, I'm gonna piss on it and put it out." Dial tone. Kamer thought this was all a bit mysterious.
The next morning, at his office in Kamer-Singer Associates' New Montgomery Street suite, Kamer discovered a large, foul-smelling wet spot on the wall-to-wall beige carpeting. He had the offending hunk of carpet excised, hauled off, and replaced with a patch.
A patch that never quite matched: "I always knew it was there," Kamer says. So did everyone. This story trickled around San Francisco's political and media circles for years, a guaranteed laugh line and an illustration of just how aggressive San Francisco's most aggressive flack would be when he felt personally encroached upon.
And yet, this tale represents more than legions of happy hour raconteurs ever knew. Because, as is the case with so many things relating to Sam Singer, it has a complex relationship with the truth. The truth, after all, isn't exactly Singer's milieu. His mission is to push "the facts as our clients see them."