Sam Singer Is Oakland’s New Best Friend
The crisis communications guru loves a good fight. Fortunately for Warriors fans, his latest battle involves keeping the team from moving to San Francisco.
For Sam Singer, nothing beats a good bare-knuckled brawl.
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In late 2007, the San Francisco Zoo was desperate for help. On Christmas Day, Tatiana the tiger had leaped out of her enclosure, mauling a young man to death and severely injuring two brothers before being shot dead by San Francisco police. To help stave off the resulting media firestorm, the zoo called crisis communications specialist Sam Singer.
The onetime editor of the Berkeley Gazette is an expert at building a media narrative to shape public opinion. He understands how to turn his client into a sympathetic victim while vilifying his opponents. So even though it was clear that the zoo’s tiger enclosure was unsafe—it was too short; 4-feet less than the standard recommended height—Singer set out to make sure that his client was acquitted in the court of public opinion.
In the weeks after the attack, Singer went on the offensive, digging up dirt on the brothers Kulbir and Amritpal Dhaliwal and feeding it to reporters. According to the ensuing narrative, the Dhaliwals were drunk and stoned that day and had relentlessly taunted Tatiana until she simply couldn’t take it any longer. It was a first-rate piece of PR work: The majestic Tatiana had to be put down because of some drunken jerks who ultimately got what they deserved. And the zoo? It was just the unfortunate setting for a tragic tale.
“I remember telling an AP reporter, ‘Don’t get high on weed. Don’t get drunk on liquor. And don’t fuck with man-eating animals,’ ” Singer recalled recently, with a laugh. "But, of course, they didn't print the word 'fuck.' "
Singer is what news reporters call “a quote machine.” Adept at the care and feeding of journalists, he’s loud, funny, and a consummate trash-talker, acutely aware that all most reporters really want is a killer quote on deadline and that nugget of info that no other journo has.
He’s also the last guy you want to face in a public spat.
Like any good PR flack, Singer zealously defends and advocates for his clients. And much like a good attorney, he has a client list that includes people and organizations from across the political and ideological spectrum.
Chevron and its Richmond oil refinery are perhaps Singer’s biggest account. The refinery, of course, has a long history of fouling the air in West Contra Costa County, and there’s ample evidence that the pollution it generates has severely impacted the health of nearby residents. But Singer is unapologetic. He’s even built a website called the Richmond Standard that provides daily news coverage of Richmond while also painting Chevron in a positive light. “I bleed red, white, and blue for Chevron,” the Berkeley resident said unabashedly. “I love those guys.”
While East Bay liberals may find it tough to root for someone who proudly shills for Big Oil, Singer also fights for more noble causes. Case in point: He has represented the city of San Bruno in its years-long effort to hold PG&E accountable for the 2010 pipeline blast that destroyed a neighborhood and killed eight people.
And for many Oakland residents, and for East Bay basketball fans, Singer’s current cause couldn’t be more just: He’s repping for a group of wealthy San Francisco residents who are willing to do whatever it takes to stop the Golden State Warriors from building a new arena next to UCSF Medical Center.
But taking on the Warriors is a helluva lot tougher than going after the Dhaliwal brothers—or PG&E, for that matter. The Warriors, after all, are the new Golden Ones. The franchise that can do no wrong. The guys who make sports fun again.
But Singer is undaunted. He relishes being the underdog, and to him, nothing beats a good bare-knuckled brawl.
“We’re going all the way,” he vowed. “We’re gonna fight to the last man standing.”
WARRIORS OWNERS Joe Lacob and Peter Guber shocked Oakland and the rest of the Bay Area four years ago when they announced that they were moving the team to San Francisco. Their first choice for a new arena was Pier 30-32, just south of the Bay Bridge. But Lacob and Guber abandoned that site in 2014, after San Francisco residents sent the team a strong message when they voted down a large condo project proposed for a nearby spot on the waterfront.
Since then, much of the media attention—thanks in no small part to Singer—has focused on whether his clients, who call themselves the Mission Bay Alliance, can block Lacob and Guber’s new arena site next to UCSF hospital. The alliance has filed three lawsuits to halt the Warriors’ plans and has successfully delayed the opening of the new arena until at least 2019.
But while the fight in San Francisco has grabbed the media spotlight, the numerous impacts that a Warriors’ move would inflict on Oakland and Alameda County have largely stayed in the shadows. The most worrisome of those impacts involves money.