CORPORATE CASE STUDY: PR commitment helps CCA escape reputation woes

Having overcome near financial disaster, the Corrections Corporation of America is now using communications to address the ever-present problems facing private corrections.

Having overcome near financial disaster, the Corrections Corporation of America is now using communications to address the ever-present problems facing private corrections.

Fear factor is what Louise Green battles for a living - her field is indeed scary. Nobody really wants to think about murderers, rapists, thieves, and the prisons that house them. And her employer, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), only recently awoke from its own financial nightmare. Founded by two West Point classmates and a former state-corrections commissioner in 1983, the pioneering company grew with privatization and tough sentencing laws in vogue. The company touted lower costs, flexibility, and its assumption of legal liability. The country's largest private prison company, CCA now operates 59 facilities (and owns two empty ones). But not all was well at the company's Nashville headquarters by the late 1990s. Management spun assets off into Prison Realty Trust to enjoy the tax benefits of a real-estate investment trust (REIT), but problems arose when CCA merged into the REIT, to which it was paying rent. "In the end, they created a company that was largely incomprehensible to most investors," says David Fox, editor of the Nashville Post, a local business magazine. The company also built a few speculative prisons it ultimately couldn't fill, and stock prices that once topped $40 fell into the single digits. But with a cash infusion from large investors, CCA underwent a revamp that replaced top management, dissolved the REIT, and reinstated its previous name. Former Tennessee finance commissioner John Ferguson took over the CEO job in August 2000, and Green left a technology start-up to become marketing and communications VP in January 2001. Breaking away from embattled image "They came into a situation with a huge reputational problem," Fox recalls. "[It] was definitely an embattled company, and their stance seemed to be to hunker down," he says of the old management, under which reporters' calls sometimes went unanswered. All that changed when Ferguson took over. "They apparently made the decision to be up front about the situation, to emphasize transparency." Ferguson spent his first year on the road with the sales team, talking to employees and customers. Meanwhile, Green shifted several employee-relations functions to human resources. "Our intent was to have much more of an externally focused marketing effort," she says. She also wanted to showcase the softer side of corrections, such as rehabilitation programs and vocational training. A first step was to revamp the company's visual image, replacing drab, institutional-looking collateral with colorful layouts and employee photos. Green's changes also included bringing most PR and advertising functions in-house. Her seven-person staff, along with dual-duty public information officers (PIOs) designated in each facility, handle the gamut of marketing functions, including crisis communications, community relations, and website management. Their day-to-day activities tend to focus less on CCA's financial recovery than on perennial problems facing private corrections, including not-in-my-backyard fears and well-entrenched groups of vocal critics. CCA previously worked with Nashville agency Dye, Van Mol & Lawrence, which, among other things, trained field PIOs. (The company still keeps the White House Writers Group on retainer for help with public-policy issues and speechwriting.) In February, CCA conducted its first two-and-a-half-day in-house media relations workshop for PIOs. It was the first time all 60-plus spokespeople came together, says Chris Howard, PIO for the David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center in Tulsa, OK. Green's boss, EVP and chief development officer Ken Bouldin, also supervises small federal, state, and local customer-relations staffs. "Every single thing we do truly is government affairs," says Green, noting that CCA finds itself in the delicate position of being both a partner and competitor of government. Combating controversy "There's always controversy over the jail. It doesn't matter who runs it," says Howard. "You have to work hard to get good PR. Unfortunately, you spend a lot of time putting out fires." Inmates-rights groups (which generally oppose incarceration) and government-employee unions (which lose members when facilities privatize) are the most vehement opponents of CCA and its ilk. CCA runs mostly nonunion facilities, and dismisses the possibility of ever winning over organized labor. "They continually deliver misinformation," Green claims. "The profit motive changes the mission of corrections from public safety and rehabilitation to making a quick buck," says Cheryl Kelly, spokeswoman for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. Opponents prodigiously spread their messages on the internet, and CCA combats them with research. The marketing staff routinely sponsors think-tank and statistical studies, such as a recently released report supporting the cost-saving potential of private prisons. A separate research division is also being formed at CCA. Local PR is no small task at CCA, and Green's staff works closely with wardens to identify the best spokespeople, she says. Private prisons are usually built in small towns. Corrections companies use community relations to dispel fears, although rural areas often embrace - albeit sometimes reluctantly - the economic opportunities offered. But Howard's experiences in Tulsa exemplify, or perhaps magnify, common challenges facing private corrections - in particular, those of CCA. The facility where he works is the largest privately run city/county jail in the country. Unlike prisons, where most inmates spend at least two years, some 35,000 people come and go from Tulsa's city/county jail annually. The average stay is only 18 days. CCA stepped into a political quagmire when it took over operation of the shiny new building in 1999. The county sheriff ran the old lockup, and jailers tired of poor working conditions campaigned heavily for dedicating a sales-tax increment to building and maintaining the new jail, says Tulsa County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Brian Edwards. Since the jail is a city/county effort, and since building it required a sales-tax election, a jail authority of county commissioners and area mayors was formed to oversee it, explains Tulsa County Commissioner Bob Dick. The idea of contracting with a private operator fueled much local debate, but the jail authority ultimately hired CCA as a cost-control measure. The sheriff filed a lawsuit claiming CCA's contract wasn't valid, but lost before the Oklahoma Supreme Court. In response to controversy kept alive by the sheriff's supporters and former jailers, CCA took the unprecedented step of putting a full-time PIO in place at the Tulsa jail. To counter negative assertions and build community support, CCA seeks to identify "champions" outside the company. In towns with CCA facilities, the company organizes community-relations boards. The Tulsa board meets quarterly, and includes chaplains, homemakers, and the local NAACP president. "We try to provide them with as much information as possible to dispel rumors," Howard says. CCA is also using its 20th anniversary this year to spread the word that private corrections is a proven industry, and a success story of public/private partnerships, Green says. A number of celebrations have already taken place in Nashville, and each facility will commemorate the milestone on its own anniversary date. Remaining challenges The company thinks its cost-saving message will fall on attentive ears as state budgets shrink and many prison systems reach capacity. And while CCA's management is much more accessible these days, and its stock is trading above $20 per share, challenges certainly remain. "The future of the company is not a chip shot from here," says Fox. "What they must do is increase the occupancy in the prison beds, and it's not a given that they'll have success in doing that." ----- PR contacts VP, marketing and communications Louise Green Marketing directors Steve Owen (media relations), Laura Ladd (written materials and special events) Creative services manager Jim McAnally Local media relations Public information officers in each facility External agency White House Writers Group

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