It hasn’t been a good year for the private prison industry. Major banks, including Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase, have announced they will no longer provide financing for these companies. The governing body of Denver, Colorado recently voted to stop dealing with two private prison giants, The Geo Group and CoreCivic.
Now it turns out a public relations firm – Edelman – has turned down a contract with The Geo Group, a major Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) contractor, after just two weeks on the job.
A PR firm is supposed to put its clients in the best possible light. Still, staff members resisted working with The Geo Group and also believed the association could harm the company’s reputation with other clients. After ten days of debate within the firm, and a careful weighing advantages and disadvantages connected with this lucrative contract, Edelman decided not to go forward.
The Geo Group
Based in Boca Raton, Florida, The Geo Group is the largest operator of private prisons and detention centers in the nation, and also offers these services in South Africa, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Founded by former FBI agents in 1984, The Geo Group has had at least nine ICE detainees die in its facilities in less than three years.
In May, 26 immigrant fathers and sons from filed a class-action lawsuit against The Geo Group, alleging “armed men swarmed their rooms” in a Texas-based detention center, using excessive force to separate them. This action, according to the plaintiffs, violates a nationwide preliminary injunction against family separations. The Geo Group describes the allegations as “baseless.”
In 2016, the Obama Administration began phasing out the use of private prisons in the federal sector, citing an audit finding such prisons “fare poorly” in comparison with conditions in government-run facilities. Upon taking office in 2017, President Trump reversed this decision, causing the stock prices of both The Geo Group and CoreCivic to soar.
After originally signing the contract in early July, Edelman executives visited a Geo Group ICE-processing facility in Florida. According to the New York Times, The Geo Group wanted to counter the negative information in the media regarding its role in separating migrant parents from their children at the border.
These executives, including a former Trump Administration spokeswoman, returned to their Washington, DC base with plans to develop a strategic campaign for the client and present a strong argument for the contract for those staffers who disapproved of it. Comments on an internal Edelman thread regarding the matter include:
“Instead of recognizing the pervasive and significant concerns held by those aware of the work, they made the entire office out to be immature, short-sighted children who didn’t see the big picture and understand their grand vision for their work.”
“Among other things, I think a lot of people are going to go quietly or not so quietly in the next month.”
Another factor in Edelman’s decision to cancel The Geo Group contract involved its representation of Wells Fargo, another bank that is no longer in the private prison financing business. Currently, Edelman handles philanthropic and environmental sustainability communications for the bank.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line in the Edelman story is that a public relations firm feared representing The Geo Group at this point in time could end up a public relations nightmare, driving away other, less controversial, clients. Edelman is not the only one – the PR firm Deloitte and McKinsey has employees also pushing for ending representation for companies hired by ICE. An Edelman spokesperson told the New York Times, “Edelman takes on complex and diverse clients. We ultimately decided not to proceed with this work.”
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