PR Power Play: Bay Area Bigwig Sets His Sights on Archbishop Cordileone

Sam Singer, described as ‘one of the most powerful people in the San Francisco Bay Area,’ has been hired by ‘concerned parents’ who object to the archbishop’s efforts to strengthen the Catholic identity in archdiocesan schools.

(photo: CNA)

SANFRANCISCO — Sam Singer’s public-relations firm spun a Chevron oil-refinery disaster in California and fought back a legal ruling in Ecuador that could have awarded billions of dollars to indigenous people for the company’s alleged pollution damage to the Amazon.

Now, he has been hired to attack San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone. He even wants Pope Francis to do his work.

“Everyone is praying that the Pope will remove the San Francisco archbishop and these priests,” Singer said in a Google+ post on Feb. 18, Ash Wednesday.

“A revolution is brewing in S.F. Catholic Church against Archbishop Cordileone morality clauses,” he said in a Feb. 13 tweet referring to the controversy over standards for Catholic high-school teachers.

The San Francisco-based Singer Associates, Inc., in its biography of Singer, said that the firm’s founder has been described as “one of the most powerful people in the San Francisco Bay Area” for “his ability to impact the news for his clients.”

Singer told the newspaper SF Weekly that “concerned parents” are paying for his services in their dispute with Archbishop Cordileone.

The beginning of this public-relations war was bland enough.

The Archdiocese of San Francisco on Feb. 3 announced that explanations of Catholic teaching would be added to the faculty and staff handbooks for its four high schools. It also proposed new morals clauses for teacher contracts that would define teachers as having a ministerial role. The archdiocese said the changes to the handbook and teacher contract did not contain anything new but were intended to “clarify existing expectations that Catholic teachers in their professional and public lives uphold Catholic teaching.”

Archbishop Cordileone said the changes focused on sexual morality and religious practice because confusion is prevalent about the Church’s stance on these issues.

Protests and opposition greeted the action.

About 100 people, including some Catholic high-school teachers, students and students’ parents, gathered outside San Francisco’s St. Mary’s Cathedral on Ash Wednesday to protest.

Several activist groups like the Human Rights Campaign, Faithful America and the Equally Blessed Coalition have attacked Archbishop Cordileone as well.

But the SF Weekly claimed that the Ash Wednesday protest “bore the signature slickness of a Singer campaign.” The newspaper noted the widespread news coverage it received.

Singer said he hopes the archbishop sees that the standards he is asking of teachers are something that doesn’t “keep with Catholic values.” Singer characterized the standards as “a loyalty oath.”

Nonetheless, Archbishop Cordileone has withstood the media controversy and threats from state and city legislators. He suggested replacing proposed contractual description of teachers as ministers with wording about the teaching ministry.

Since mid-February, Singer’s social-media accounts have sent out many news stories highly critical of the archdiocese. His tweets build a narrative that appears to focus on publicizing both opposition to the archbishop and the admitted mistakes of some local Catholic leaders.

Singer’s Feb. 18 Google+ post, which claimed that everyone was praying for Pope Francis to remove Archbishop Cordileone, linked to a story about priests at Star of the Sea Church, who handed out pamphlets about the examination of conscience to elementary-school students ahead of confession.

February press coverage of the pamphlets focused on passages pertaining to adult sexual sins. Father Joseph Illo, the parish’s pastoral administrator, apologized for the incidents as an “oversight” and said the pamphlets should have been given to the parents instead of the children.

Singer also sought to capitalize on controversy from Father Illo’s decision to have male-only altar servers at his church, claiming that the “fight continues” for altar girls. He tweeted a quote from Father Illo defending the practice of male-only servers — and included a picture of the Monty Python sketch on the Spanish Inquisition.

Singer’s Twitter account repeated a San Francisco Chronicle columnist’s attack, saying:  “Don’t let S.F. archbishop's charm fool you: his message of exclusion and hate.” Another tweet claimed the archbishop will “purge gay, lesbian, pro-choice teachers from Catholic schools.”

On Feb. 24, Archbishop Cordileone rejected similar characterizations, telling The New York Times, “We’re not on a witch hunt; we’re not looking to terminate teachers.”

Singer Associates clients include the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle. Both newspapers have been highly critical of the San Francisco archdiocese’s Catholic schools.

The PR firm’s employees include former reporters and former political staffers, as well as former political and legal strategists.

The SF Weekly profiled Singer’s abilities in August 2014, with a focus on his firm’s three-decade relationship with oil giant Chevron.

Singer Associates led the public-relations response to a major fire at a Richmond, Calif., oil refinery after its third catastrophic failure since 1989. The 2012 pipeline explosion produced a massive cloud of thick smoke.

At the time of the fire, local authorities gave a shelter-in-place order for Richmond and two other cities. In the following weeks, an estimated 15,000 people in nearby communities sought medical treatment for breathing problems, chest pain, shortness of breath, sore throat and headaches, with 20 people being hospitalized, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board’s 2015 report on the incident said.

The city of Richmond’s 39-page legal complaint against Chevron accused the company of “willful and conscious disregard of public safety,” as well as “years of neglect, lax oversight and corporate indifference to necessary safety inspection and repairs.”  

In response to the disaster, Singer’s firm engaged in a major public-relations campaign. It created a newspaper to produce pro-Chevron messages alongside community news and to shape the political and legal reaction. Chevron paid only $2 million in penalties for the incident.

Singer’s firm is also credited with helping to fight back a threatened multibillion-dollar legal judgment against Chevron that could have benefited indigenous Ecuadorans and farmers in the Amazon region, who said the oil giant was responsible for massive pollution there. Singer’s firm said the lawsuit was fraudulent.