Edelman, Public Relations Giant, Drops Client Over Border Detention Centers

Via New York Times |Tiffany Hsu

An immigration detention facility in Adelanto, Calif., run by the GEO Group, which had hired Edelman to improve its public image.
An immigration detention facility in Adelanto, Calif., run by the GEO Group, which had hired Edelman to improve its public image.CreditCreditJohn Moore/Getty Images

In May, executives from the giant public relations firm Edelman went to Florida to pitch a potential client: a private prisons company with contracts from the Trump administration to run immigrant detention centers.

The GEO Group, a multibillion-dollar business based in Boca Raton, was being battered by negative media attention in the uproar over reports that the United States was separating migrant children from their parents at the Mexican border. Lawmakers were demanding access to detention facilities.

The Edelman team, which included a former Trump administration spokeswoman, proposed to reshape the GEO Group’s public image by “proactively correcting the record” with a new narrative “that tells the relevant stories directly to stakeholders,” according to a presentation document reviewed by The New York Times.

After landing the job, Edelman was slated to start work in July. But employees at the firm objected to the contract, and Edelman dropped the GEO Group account.

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According to several employees, Edelman reconsidered because of concerns that news of its relationship with the prison company would be leaked, leaving one of the world’s leading public relations firms with a potential public relations crisis.

Other image management and consulting firms working for government agencies involved in the detention centers have recently faced criticism from consumers and their own employees. Ogilvy, the marketing and public relations firm, tried to confront internal consternation this month over its work for Customs and Border Protection, AdWeek reported. Last year, employees at Deloitte and McKinsey pushed for the companies to end their contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Several financial institutions have also backed away from the private prison industry, with SunTrust, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, BNP Paribas and Wells Fargo having cut ties with companies associated with immigration detention centers like the GEO Group and CoreCivic.

Employees and executives from tech giants including Microsoft and Amazon have also protested their companies’ ties to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other entities involved in the separation of migrant children from their parents.

In a statement to The Times, Edelman confirmed that it had dropped the GEO Group account. “Edelman takes on complex and diverse clients,” the statement said. “We ultimately decided not to proceed with this work.”

Edelman has touted its strong values and refuses to work with clients in the tobacco, coal or firearms businesses.

Lisa Ross, the president of Edelman’s office in Washington, helped set up the presentation in Florida, according to a person who participated in meetings where the pitch was discussed. The person added that one of the Edelman employees who had delivered the pitch was Lindsay Walters, who joined the company in April after serving as a deputy press secretary in the White House. Ms. Ross and Ms. Walters did not respond to a request for comment.

Early in a slide show presentation to the GEO Group, Edelman said that “activists are using controversies around immigration to drive a wedge between you and your stakeholders,” adding that “your current culture and structure are not prepared for this fight,” according to documents shared with The Times.

In June, after word reached Edelman employees that the company would be doing work for the GEO Group, a debate sprang up on Fishbowl, a networking app used for industry communications. Screen shots of the Fishbowl messages from Edelman employees were shared with The Times.

“I am beyond disturbed,” one employee wrote.

Another wrote, “This is an inherently political, moral & values based issue.”

Several employees wrote that Edelman executives seemed to want to keep the GEO Group contract quiet, a move that they said was hypocritical and “a red flag.”

Other employees disagreed with the objectors, chastising them for “pearl-clutching about private prisons” and suggesting that they leave “personal politics out of important client work.”

Some employees asked to not be assigned to the GEO Group project, according to two people familiar with the requests. Others voiced their misgivings to supervisors.

In a recent all-hands meeting in Edelman’s Washington office, executives informed employees that the company was resigning the GEO Group project.

The executives “took the opportunity to basically shame us for ruining the work for the company because they couldn’t trust us not to leak it to the press,” one person wrote on Fishbowl. Other Edelman employees made the same point in the Fishbowl thread.

In a statement, Edelman said, “This is an inaccurate reflection of what happened at the meeting.”

The adjusted stock price for the GEO Group, a generous donor to President Trump, has gone down 28 percent in the past year.

The company, which for several years operated a migrant housing facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has been criticized by government officials. A surprise inspection of a GEO Group processing center in California last year by the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security found bedsheets braided into nooses, inadequate medical care and detainees who were improperly segregated and shackled.

The GEO Group is also battling a lawsuit, filed in 2017 by Washington State’s attorney general, that accuses the company of paying thousands of immigrant detainee workers $1 a day since 2015 to prepare food, wash clothes and clean facilities. The state’s minimum wage is now $12 an hour.

In a conference call with analysts on Tuesday, the GEO Group’s chief executive, George C. Zoley, said the negative associations that had attached themselves to the GEO Group had resulted from a “deliberate mischaracterization of our longstanding role as a quality service provider to ICE.” He added that the GEO Group was “taking steps to more aggressively tell our story to members of Congress, state legislators and the general media.”

Mr. Zoley did not respond to a request for an interview.

On Tuesday, the GEO Group reported more than $82 million in net income for the year so far, a 14 percent jump from the same period in 2018. But in its annual report filed this year, the company said that “public resistance” could damage its business.

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