Nauru Justice Minister David Adeang. Photo: Michael Gordon The conditions of asylum seekers detained on Nauru are clouded in secrecy. Photo: Angela Wylie
Protesters at a rally calling for the closure of the Manus and Nauru detention centres. Photo: Anadolu Agency
PR company condemned by peak body for releasing rape claim details
When calamity strikes and your reputation is shot, Lyall Mercer reckons he can sort you out. But what happens when the crisis manager is steeped in his own crisis?
Mercer, a former journalist and founder of Mercer PR, went to ground this week after his firm committed a colossal public relations blunder – revealing the name of an alleged refugee rape victim and making itself the story.
The Brisbane-based firm’s Instagram and Twitter account have been set to “private” and most links on its website have been deleted.
Among Mercer’s clients is the government of Nauru, which hosts a detention centre bankrolled by . Mercer PR circulated a Nauru police brief detailing the Somali refugee’s name, particulars of her alleged rape and a vaginal examination.
Condemnation was swift, including from the Public Relations Institute of which suggested the incident was a privacy breach that highlighted lax professional standards.
The incident has cast the spotlight on Mr Mercer, principal of the eponymously named firm.
The company website says clients pay Mr Mercer “primarily to think. I think about the message, the angles, the implications and the pitfalls. I think about what no one else thinks about.”
Mercer PR is called on when “company, executive or personal reputations are at risk” and advises clients on “achieving positive outcomes from negativity”.
The Hillsong Church and the Queensland Taxi Council confirmed they use the services of Mercer PR. The Queensland Liberal National Party was also once on the firm’s books.
Mr Mercer is no newcomer to controversy. In 2012 he brokered a contentious interview deal between Channel Nine and the wife of triple-murderer Max Sica.
Victims of crime groups labelled the deal, for which Mr Mercer was reportedly paid, as “disgusting”.
Since the latest controversy broke, Mr Mercer has deleted his blog, however his views on social affairs and the PR business are on the public record.
In 2013 he said then prime minister Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech – widely lauded as one of her best performances – badly misread the public mood.
In 2010 he wrote in the Courier Mail that children live in “an unprotected, R-rated world” and asked “aren’t our children more important than making money? If not, maybe it’s time for governments to step in for the sake of children.”
In August, there were 93 children in detention on Nauru.
In an odd role reversal on Thursday, the Nauruan government came out swinging in defence of its embattled n spin doctors.
In a press statement Justice Minister David Adeang said the release of the woman’s name was “the decision of the Nauruan authorities alone” and the media should stop blaming others including the firm who “merely distributed the government’s statement”.
“The police investigation has shown there was no rape, therefore, as far as we are concerned the person in question is not a rape victim or a victim of any crime,” Mr Adeang said, adding “truth is the real victim here”.
Nauru police – subject to criticism they are incompetent and ill-equipped – have closed the rape case due to insufficient evidence.
The controversy underscores the difficulties journalists face obtaining information about the plight of asylum seekers and refugees at the n-funded detention centre.
The n Border Force Act threatens detention centre workers with up to two years in prison if they disclose information relating to their work, and the Nauru government recently hiked the cost of a journalist visa to $8000 – which is not refunded if the application is refused.
The Nauru government said on Thursday the “absurd” reaction to the release of the woman’s name means it is “reluctant to update n media on future police investigations”.
In a statement issued Friday morning, Mercer PR said the company has acted “legally and ethically” at all times and is considering legal action against the PRIA.
“We have not ‘gone to ground’ and these reports are ridiculous,” the statement said. “We are simply focused on servicing our clients in the manner we always have, rather than answering ridiculous questions no one in cares about, like the settings on our social media accounts.
“Just because we choose not to give a particular journalist a response to questions doesn’t mean we are hiding.”
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