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From Ballot Measures to Budgets, Santa Clara’s $200K Spin Meister Directs City Communications

Last winter Santa Clara hired crisis PR virtuoso Sam Singer to provide “professional public affairs/media relations services” that amounted to running the City’s public communication.

Since then he has run the City’s communication with its constituents more like a marketing department than a public information office. From the Mayor’s squabbles with the 49ers to the City budget, every topic is viewed and presented through a strategic lens designed to spoon-feed the “message” to residents.

Singer has two open contracts with Santa Clara totaling $200,000. One is with the Santa Clara Stadium Authority, paid for out of Stadium operating and reserve funds, and the second is with the City of Santa Clara, paid for out of the general fund.

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The City issued an RFP for public relations services for both the City and the Stadium Authority on Jan. 18, 2018 and Singer’s contract was effective Feb. 14, 2018. The City website doesn’t show any other bidders.

Singer was brought on to replace City Hall’s last propagandist, Pete Hillan of Banner Public Affairs, who had a $50,000 contract in 2017.

Singer is a well known crisis PR specialist who told the SF Weekly in 2014, “The most important element of damage control is ‘throwing the Molotov cocktails back at ’em.'” Singer is considered the go-to guy when PR disaster strikes, and his mission, wrote reporter Joe Eskenazi, is “to push the facts as our clients see them.”

One of those clients was the 49ers when the team was lobbying San Francisco to build a new stadium to replace Candlestick Park — a campaign that proved to be unsuccessful.

One of Singer’s biggest clients is Chevron’s Richmond oil refinery; which has had more than one industrial accident — the most recent was the 2012 fire that released toxic fumes and sickened thousands — but manages to keep a Chevron-friendly City Council in power. Singer also runs the Chevron-funded Richmond Standard local news site.

 

Marketing Santa Clara City Hall to its Constituents

Since he was hired in February, Singer has been diligent in his efforts to “push the facts” as Santa Clara City Hall sees them.

Public records show that Singer’s activity in Santa Clara is extensive and follows the model of brand marketing for a private business selling itself to customers. In this case the client is City Hall and the customers it’s selling to are City residents and voters. The “product” being promoted is the current City Hall administration.

For example, his templates refer to “third-party validators” — pushing your message through outside groups and people with titles that convey authority — and using “industry experts,” a category of third-party validators. In politics “third-party validators” and “industry experts” are friendly editorial boards, reporters and political commentators.

Invoices show Singer closely involved in almost every City news release and PR campaign since May. He shaped positioning and communications strategy and developed “messaging and talking points,” presentations and public statements, and wrote news releases and other city written communications.

Despite his very active engagement with City Hall, there is an almost complete absence of communication via City email addresses between him and City employees and officials, even though he is running the City’s communications. Likewise, City officials’ calendars show few meetings with him.

Singer’s invoices also show that he had phone meetings with City Manager Deanna Santana and City Attorney Brian Doyle and Mayor Gillmor. There are many calls with “client” or “client team” that don’t identify who was on the call.

Singer’s Santa Clara PR portfolio includes Measure A; “political contributions actions;” salaries for the police chief, city clerk and elected officials; the Santa Clara Chamber of Commerce, the Santa Clara Convention Center, “upcoming public policy matters” including “legal” and “new ordinances;” dark money; “FPPC calls;” press releases for State of the City presentations; and the City’s response to accusations of sexual misconduct against former Council Member Dominic Caserta.

His work also includes “stadium issues,” the Levi’s Stadium curfew, the College Football Playoffs, the Levi’s Stadium issues survey, the Stadium Authority budget and the stadium rent reset dispute.

But it’s not clear that his frequently hyped spin mastery has worked here.

Measure A — endorsed by the Gillmor and her Council allies — didn’t win over voters, even though the City’s communications omitted any information that would highlight the proposal’s complexity and incorrectly said the proposal was for the voting system used in San Francisco — when in fact Measure A proposed something quite different.

Singer’s invoices show that on June 4 — the day before the election — one of his staff was reviewing talking points with the City. There’s no indication whether these were the talking points the Mayor used in her effort to spin the ballot box loss as a failure of voter comprehension, which was a non-starter.

Singer likely shaped the stadium rent reset win as a $180 million “victory” instead of what it was: a $10 million gain to be realized over 30 years. That angle failed to get much traction in the news media despite the screaming tagline at the top of every City press release and public statement.

The PR campaign around the candidate forums uproar certainly appears to follow Singer’s Molotov cocktail MO. But instead of re-directing public anger at the press, as it seemed intended to do — the media had topline billing — it just appears to have aroused more ire against Santa Clara City Hall for giving short shrift to a longtime City institution.

For all the media strategy and relations in the job description and his plans, it doesn’t appear that he’s accomplished much in the way of actual press relations.

He set up a meeting between Gillmor, City Manager Santana and the Mercury editorial Board on Aug. 14 — the same week the City announced the settlement with the 49ers and Gillmor announced her election campaign.

The Mercury had a copy of the supposedly confidential agreement, dated June 18, 2018, and reported on it at 8:49 p.m. on Aug. 14. This exactly follows the pattern set last year — before Singer’s arrival — when Gillmor had a meeting with the Chronicle editorial board about a Stadium Authority performance audit and within days the Chronicle had a copy of the “confidential” report.

While the press secretary and political aide are fixtures in modern politics, Singer’s position in Santa Clara begs the question of why a City Hall that talks so much about transparency seems to need a quarter of a million dollars worth of spin.

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