Facing Employee Backlash and Potential PR Fallout, Edelman Stopped Working With ICE Prison Contractor

Geo Group looks to counter 'factually inaccurate portrayal of our facilities'

Handcuffed people stand in a prison.
Migrants held at a Geo Group-run ICE facility in 2013. Getty Images
Headshot of Patrick Coffee

Earlier this month, independent public relations firm Edelman terminated a potentially lucrative contract with for-profit corrections company The Geo Group, a top contractor for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, after less than two weeks, according to four people with extensive knowledge of the business who spoke to Adweek on condition of anonymity.

These sources, which include current Edelman employees, said the firm opted not to work with The Geo Group because of internal pressure from staffers protesting the partnership and worries that the potential blowback could endanger relationships with other clients.

“Edelman takes on complex and diverse clients. We ultimately decided not to proceed with this work,” an Edelman spokesperson said in a statement to Adweek.

"Like all Americans, we are concerned about the unprecedented humanitarian crisis at our southern border; we acknowledge the challenge, but we are appalled by the historically and factually inaccurate portrayal of our facilities."
The Geo Group representative

Boca Raton, Fla.-based The Geo Group is America’s largest operator of private prisons, detention centers and mental health facilities, with additional locations in the U.K., South Africa and Australia. It has recently become a political lightning rod due to its role operating key ICE detention facilities.

Tensions at Edelman arising from its work for a client directly tied to the most divisive political issue of the day mirror those ad agency Ogilvy faced in recent weeks when the WPP network’s CEO and chairman, John Seifert, attempted to address employee objections to its ongoing work for U.S. Customs and Border Protection before issuing an all-staff email saying Ogilvy would retain the business despite the controversy.

According to two Edelman sources, employees registered their disapproval as soon as executives in the firm’s Washington, D.C., office announced the Geo Group win in a new business email. The decision to cancel the contract followed approximately 10 days of internal debate over the benefits and potential disadvantages of working with such a client.

Executives were concerned about employees’ objections to the business, the sources said, but they also feared public awareness of the relationship might damage Edelman’s reputation.

An ‘unprecedented humanitarian crisis’

The Geo Group, which was founded by former FBI agents in 1984, currently manages or owns 142 facilities across the U.S.

Various advocacy groups have accused the company of human rights violations over the past several years, with some citing the deaths of at least nine ICE detainees in group-run centers since 2016. Geo also faces several ongoing legal challenges. In May, 13 immigrant fathers who say they tried to enter the United States in 2018 and file for political asylum after fleeing violence in Honduras, Guatemala and Brazil filed a class-action suit against the company, claiming Geo employees separated them from their children in direct violation of an injunction against the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. Geo Group denies the “baseless allegations” in that lawsuit.

In an email to Adweek, a spokesperson for The Geo Group confirmed that the company recently sought the services of one or more communications firms to counter negative coverage, which he described as “factually inaccurate.”

We have sought out a number of strategic communications firms to help us tell our story, which we believe has been largely misrepresented in the media,” the spokesperson wrote. “Like all Americans, we are concerned about the unprecedented humanitarian crisis at our southern border; we acknowledge the challenge, but we are appalled by the historically and factually inaccurate portrayal of our facilities.”

The representative continued, “Our processing centers are not overcrowded, nor have they ever housed unaccompanied minors. Our facilities are highly rated by independent accreditation entities and provide humane residential care, including 24/7 medical services, modern recreation amenities and access to legal counsel.”

He declined to elaborate beyond that statement.

Sally Q. Yates, Deputy Attorney General under President Obama, announced in August 2016 that the government would begin phasing out its partnerships with private prison companies, citing an audit that found the conditions inside their facilities “compare poorly” to those in federal prisons. President Trump reversed that policy soon after taking office, and stock prices for both The Geo Group and America’s second-largest private prison company, CoreCivic, soared following his inauguration.

According to multiple Edelman employees discussing the Geo Group account on networking app Fishbowl, the firm’s New York office also performed communications work for CoreCivic until that contract ended last month.

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.