The past few days has seen public relations consultancy Mercer PR come under fire for releasing an alleged assault victim’s name in a release from the Nauruan Government.
According to the ABC and The Guardian, on Monday Mercer PR distributed a media release to various outlets on behalf of the Nauruan Government, saying there wasn’t enough evidence to suggest a woman at the detention centre on Nauru had been raped. The allegations first appeared on ABC’s 7.30 program.
Within the statement, Mercer PR apparently included the police file which included the woman’s name and details of the alleged assault. B&T has not seen the release or the police report in question.
While issuing the release on behalf of the Government, the ABC described the release of the woman’s name in the file from Mercer PR was an “extraordinary breach of privacy”.
The Guardian quoted academics and police officers who also believed it was a breach of privacy, and the woman’s name should not have been included within its distribution to the media.
Yesterday, industry body PRIA (Public Relations Institute of Australia) condemned the move from the PR company, saying it was breach of privacy and would violate their code of ethics if it was one of its members doing it.
However, Mercer PR is not a registered consultancy group with PRIA, nor are any of its employees individual members.
Lyall Mercer, the founder of Mercer PR, yesterday responded to B&T’s queries, saying the reports were “sensationalised and highly inaccurate”.
A release issued from the Nauruan Government this morning said reports by various media outlets were embarrassing, and confirmed the decision to include the victim’s name was of the Nauruan authorities.
The release emailed to us this morning said in part: “Mr Adeang [Justice Minister David Adeang] confirmed that the decision to include the name of the person on the report was the decision of the Nauruan authorities alone and said the media should stop blaming others, including the country’s Australian PR company who merely distributed the Government’s statement.
“’It is a lie to say we ‘published’ the name. We did not even use her name in our statement. We simply sent a police report to a few media outlets who already knew who she was, in the interests of accountability.
“‘I haven’t seen her name published anywhere so this is just a smokescreen to protect the embarrassment of the ABC and The Guardian who ran the original story that has now turned out to be false.’”
The case prompted us to question what were PR agencies responsibilities when it came to issuing releases on behalf of clients.
From a legal standpoint, we spoke to Stephen von Muenster, principal at media law specialists von Muenster Solicitors & Attorneys. He said PR agencies within Australia who deal with personal information are arguably covered under the Privacy Act and need to adhere to the Act when it comes to dealing with personal information (like names, ages and addresses) and sensitive information (health and medical information etc).
While speaking from a general standpoint, not directly for this case, as every case is different, von Muenster said the collection of sensitive information should not occur without the express consent of the person the issue is about.
“The general rule is an organisation, including PR agencies, cannot collect any personal information regardless of whether it’s sensitive or not, unless it’s necessary for one of its functions,” he said, adding arguably being given someone’s name is part of the function of a PR agency.
“The problem here is that you cannot effectively collect and use personal information that is sensitive information without the express permission of the individual.
“That means that this woman, unless they received a written direction from the woman or some sort of consent from her, they can’t use sensitive information.”
B&T has contacted Mercer PR again to ask whether consent had been given and was then forwarded on the release from the Nauruan Government. It was not distributed through Mercer PR.
Melissa Simpson, corporate communications director at ad agency DDB, said it’s not a simple black and white answer.
“Normally the end responsibility lies with the client as they are responsible for final sign-off of all public facing material – however, the agency has both a legal and moral obligation to provide accurate and best counsel as to what is and isn’t appropriate to place in media,” she said.
“Approval processes are normally part of the terms of agreement between client and agency and pending the contents of this – liability and accountability would be quite clear. In this case – I believe both are at fault and potentially could be held in contempt of court as this may be considered to influence a jury.
“What we would normally do (especially relative to government clients) is work beside their legal teams and they have final sign-off – this is best practice for most corporate communication clients. This provides everyone with a safety net.