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Edelman Falls Short As PR Industry Leader

It’s always instructive when PR teams entrusted with managing the reputations of major corporations run into reputation problems of their own. But it’s downright disturbing when it happens to one that presumes to lead our industry.

Mega-agency Edelman recently made waves by resigning a lucrative engagement working with for-profit corrections company The GEO Group, a top contractor for ICE. When news of its decision hit, some industry-watchers praised it, in part because it came in response to staff objections.

A Principled Decision…But What Principles?

Had Edelman finally grown into the principles it likes to espouse? After all, this is the agency that pioneered an early form of fake news, punted when competitors took a stand on climate change, and is notorious for pursuing growth at any price. But as the agency that has tried to align its brand with public trust, one hopes it has learned from its mistakes.

On closer examination, the Edelman/GEO Group situation is a great example of what not to do when faced with an ethical quandary. According to news reports, the agency originally pitched The GEO Group in May, and it won the contract last month. Surely it would have foreseen the possibility of staff misgivings and weighed the internal and external ramifications of the decision.

Mismanaged communications = bad PR

A good PR team would have considered the decision in advance, involving key internal stakeholders as appropriate. Once made, it would then communicate the rationale for the engagement and prepare to respond to questions from external audiences like clients and prospects.

But that’s apparently not what they did. It seems Edelman thought they would keep the GEO work under wraps. When staff opposition broke out, it tried to manage it in a series of internal discussions that seemed to backfire badly. Then it made what looks like a panicky decision to resign the client only two weeks into the engagement.

Why? Possibly because trade media coverage of its new assignment involved other agency clients who had publicly cut ties with for-profit ICE contractors. Presumably a corporation like Wells Fargo, which also happens to be struggling with reputation issues, might look askance at a PR agency with principles at cross purposes to its own.

Employee commitment matters

Adweek has receipts. Agency staff shared messages from staff members discussing the situation on the anonymous networking app Fishbowl, and they are damning. It appears that Edelman’s leadership thought they could keep the GEO engagement quiet while managing any internal dissension. That’s so not what happened.

But it gets worse! After the agency announced it had severed the contract, The GEO Group voiced its displeasure in a public statement. “It’s truly disappointing that a renowned public relations firm, which prides itself on helping companies tell their story, would allow the personal political beliefs of some employees to undermine a business contract,” read the statement attributed to Geo Group spokesman Pablo Paez.

It’s understandable that personal beliefs – political or otherwise – might impact a PR firm’s decision on what clients to accept. But it’s far less clear how Edelman thought it could keep the work secret and somehow manage a staff insurrection. Then, to top it off, it backpedals after only two weeks, which would seem to indicate it never really thought the work aligned with its values at all. It was just about the bottom line, for as long as they could get away with it.

It’s hard not to question the judgment of a PR company that so miscalculates the reputation impact of a business decision and mismanages its communication. And it’s doubly frustrating that it supports the stereotype of PR agencies staffed with morally dubious hired guns without principles, ready to take any side for a fatter payday.

Mistakes happen, but this is unworthy of the largest independent PR firm, and unworthy of our profession.

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