Three days after the media storm broke over Mercer PR’s role in releasing a statement with details of a police investigation of an alleged sexual assault in Nauru, the agency has defended itself publicly in a statement.
Mercer said neither it nor the Nauru government published the name of the alleged victim, a female Somali refugee being held at an Australian-run detention centre in Nauru, an island in Micronesia.
"Completely contrary to reports, neither our client or our company has published the name of the person in question. We are not a publishing company. Only the media can publish and her name has not been published anywhere."
The statement says the government, not Mercer, "merely provided background information from a police investigation to a very few media outlets who we understood already knew the details".
The agency said media coverage this week has been "inaccurate, sensationalised and in the cases of some of the articles talking about our company, puerile".
"Our role is limited to facilitating the flow of information between our client and the media and we have no influence on government policy or decisions," the statement says.
"Every government, company and organisation has the right to effectively communicate their message and engage communication professionals."
Mercer also says it "has acted legally and ethically at all times" and may sue the Public Relations Institute of Australia, which issued a statement condemning the agency’s actions.
"We are considering our legal position in regard to the defamatory statement issued by PRIA," Mercer said.
In response, the PRIA said in a statement: "The PRIA receives queries, from a range of publics, on the topic of ethics regularly and we received a number of queries during the past week.
"It is our duty as the professional body to highlight the constant need for ethical conduct and to work within requirements for privacy."
Finally, Mercer PR also took umbrage over several reports saying it had "gone to ground" and hidden away from the issue by locking its social media accounts.
"These reports are ridiculous. Just because we choose not to give a particular journalist a response to questions doesn’t mean we are hiding."
Scott Pettet, APAC senior vice president at Lewis PR, told PRWeek Asia the issue highlights the tricky legal position PR agencies are sometimes placed in.
"On the one hand Mercer seem to be saying that they are simply acting on behalf of their client and under the client’s direction. This does not indemnify them, however, or make them immune from behaving in a legal and ethical manner," he said.
Pettet added that Mercer’s defence is also interesting. "The say they did not ‘publish’ the identity of the complainant, although it seems clear they did disclose the identity to the media. So the question then becomes one of definition. What does it mean to ‘publish’?
"This is a question for someone with greater legal expertise than I. What I will say however is that in my opinion Mercer have done the wrong thing in disclosing this woman’s details, and they should acknowledge this."