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

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.

The individual mentioned in the above thread is Edelman U.S. CEO Russell Dubner.

Edelman declined to elaborate beyond its statement to Adweek, and CoreCivic representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

The Geo Group chose Edelman’s Washington, D.C., office as its primary PR agency after a non-compete pitch process. That contract began on or around July 1. According to one source, the firm won the business thanks primarily to the strength of an existing relationship with a top executive at the D.C. office, whom a second source identified as president Lisa Ross. Both sources confirmed that she worked on the Geo Group account while with her previous employer, Apco Worldwide. A representative for that firm declined to comment.

The debate heats up

Edelman executives visited Geo Group-run ICE processing and rehabilitation facilities in Florida after signing the contract, a source with direct knowledge confirmed, and returned to D.C. ready to develop both a strategic communications plan for the client and an internal presentation to argue against those pushing to cancel the contract. Yet apprehensions persisted. One Edelman D.C. employee confirmed attending multiple meetings in which executives discussed the business with concerned staffers. This culminated in an “all-hands” gathering where leadership said the contract would end on or around July 12.

Debate over the contract in the Edelman-only Fishbowl group grew contentious in recent weeks. The person who provided the following screenshots from the Fishbowl thread estimated that approximately 100 staff members participated in the conversation.

The primary poster in the thread disapproved of the way Edelman executives handled the situation, claiming they accused staff of “ruining the work for the company because they couldn’t trust us not to leak it to the press.” But others were more supportive. “U.S. leadership were forced to resign the work,” one wrote.

“Many people need to be in prison—these companies do it efficiently, saving taxpayer dollars,” wrote another anonymous user who criticized the protesters. “[Did] you think you worked at Moveon.org?”

One D.C. employee told Adweek that Edelman leadership had been “rightfully transparent” with concerned staffers and said the protests did factor into the company’s decision to drop The Geo Group as a client but that “larger business considerations” came into play as well. Another Edelman worker, who also requested anonymity due to concerns over job security, said executives expressed “frustration about losing this big piece of business.”

“The reputation hit should it go public would risk other client relationships,” the second source said. “This is about money, 100%.”

Pressuring financial partners

The financial institutions that lend to private prison companies have also faced a series of organized protests regarding those companies’ perceived roles in enacting Trump administration immigration policies. This March, JPMorgan Chase & Co announced that it would “stop financing private operators of prisons and detention centers,” and a week later, former Wells Fargo CEO Tim Sloan told the House Financial Services Committee that his company planned to do the same.

Edelman currently handles philanthropic and environmental sustainability communications for Wells Fargo, according to a spokesperson for the bank.

“We stated that approximately two years ago, Wells Fargo made the risk-based business decision to exit banking relationships with private prison companies when our contracts with those companies expire,” the Wells Fargo spokesperson wrote when asked about its private prison policy. “We informed clients of our decision at that time. Since then, we have steadily reduced our exposure and will not provide any additional financing for existing customers or add any additional private prison customers.”

The spokesperson also clarified that while investors in Wells Fargo mutual funds may own shares in Geo Group and CoreCivic, the company does not.

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