Edelman PR drops GEO Group after employee revolt at the prospect of laundering the reputation of private US concentration camps

Edelman is one of the world's leading PR firms, and despite the fact that they're the go-to if you want to launder the reputations of the House of Saud or the Transcanada pipeline by running massive fake-grassroots campaigns on social media, they also bill themselves as an ethical firm, refusing to take engagements for coal, tobacco or gun companies (they will, however run smear campaigns against vegan mayo).

So when Edelman took on the GEO Group (previously), a titan of American private prisons that had lately branched out into running US concentration camps with lethally bad conditions, its own employees staged a revolt, which led to Edelman firing GEO Group as a client.

The Edelman employee who pitched the GEO Group was a new hire: Lisa Ross, who'd just left the Trump White House where she'd served as deputy press-secretary (GEO are bigly Trump campaign donors). The slide deck Ross used to pitch GEO warned that "activists are using controversies around immigration to drive a wedge between you and your stakeholder...your current culture and structure are not prepared for this fight." They proposed to solve this by "proactively correcting the record."

Edelman employees discovered that their employer was working for GEO when the news leaked onto Fishbowl, a corporate networking tool. Edelman's spokesperson told the NYT that they resigned the account because "Edelman takes on complex and diverse clients...We ultimately decided not to proceed with this work." But Edelman employees say that during the meeting where they were informed that the account was canceled, company management "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."

How bad is GEO Group? Put it this way: the following banks believe the company is too dirty to do business with: "SunTrust, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, BNP Paribas and Wells Fargo."

GEO's stock has fallen by 28% in a year, as the company (a contractor of choice at Guantanamo Bay!) was found to be running "processing centers" in California where inspectors reported "bedsheets braided into nooses, inadequate medical care and detainees who were improperly segregated and shackled." GEO runs these facilities as slave-labor camps where detainees are put to hard labor for $1/day.

They've grossed $82m so far in 2019, up 14% from the previous year. They've warned investors that their growth and profits are threatened by "public resistance" and "deliberate mischaracterization of our longstanding role as a quality service provider to ICE." The company says it will address this by "taking steps to more aggressively tell our story to members of Congress, state legislators and the general media."

Not everyone at Edelman hates GEO. Some kappos on the Fishbowl thread decried "pearl-clutching about private prisons," arguing that PR flacks should leave "personal politics out of important client work."

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.”

Edelman, Public Relations Giant, Drops Client Over Border Detention Centers [Tiffany Hsu/New York Times]