In the world of PR, it’s said you’ve failed when you become the story. It appears Lyall Mercer, the Australian spinner who represents the Nauruan government, is taking whatever steps he can to remove himself from the picture.
Overnight, the Brisbane-based PR operative deleted or upped the security settings on much of his firm’s online presence. His agency’s Twitter account, @Mercer_PR, is now private and can only be viewed by approved Twitter users. It’s the same story on the Mercer_PR Instagram account, and the Mercer blog. Mercer’s personal Twitter account is also private and has been for some time.
Crikey asked Mercer why he’d suddenly gone to ground, but we received no response to our email. Journalists who deal often with Mercer have speculated it might be to protect the rest of his client list against blowback after Mercer was heavily criticised for distributing a police report revealing the name of an asylum seeker who said she had been raped on Nauru. The release came about in response to journalists’ questions about the issue. Mercer told The Guardian that the release had come straight from the Nauruan government, with nothing modified by his office (the government said it released the police report in the interests of transparency). The Guardian responded by quoting previous comments on the importance of privacy made on the Mercer blog — Mercer has criticised the media for invading people’s privacy on previous occasions.
As the public relations flack for the Nauruan government, Mercer often butts heads with journalists who want to know how asylum seekers are treated in offshore detention. Severe limitations into how the Australian press can report on detention centres include $8000 journalists’ visas to Nauru (although even a willingness to pay is no guarantee of a visa being granted, as Al Jazeera found out this week) and, under the new Border Force Act, jail terms of up to two years for detention centre staff who speak to journalists.
As a result, many journalists feel resentment that they are prevented from informing the public about the operation of government policy. For those who directly report on asylum seekers, highly combative relations with Mercer are not uncommon. As Crikey has previously noted, Mercer has emailed The Guardian’s Paul Farrell about tweets he made criticising Mercer. The ABC’s Hayden Cooper has similarly been told, through Mercer, that the Nauruan government would not co-operate with the broadcaster’s investigations. “Due to continued unbalanced and inaccurate coverage of Nauru by the ABC we will not respond to this request.”
Mercer’s other clients include the Hillsong Church, the Queensland Taxi Council and the Queensland Liberal National Party.