Bang your head like a gong ’cause it’s filled with all wrong… How to complain like a pro

There is a fine art to complaining, particularly about government services.  Mastering this ability will help you get the outcomes you want and save you hours of needless frustration.

Over on ‘Seeking Asylum Down Under‘, Mark has some complaints about the ABC.  After he didn’t get the response he wanted, he tried again.

I’m not going to comment on the validity of his complaints.  Whether or not the ABC fulfils its Charter obligations is mostly a matter of opinion.  One day, I should write about ‘balance’ because its becoming an increasingly important concept in discussions about media and politics.

But first: how to complain!

There’s a lot written in journals about the psychology of complaining.  Despite all of the research, we still don’t seem to have a wide, public understanding of complaints.  Media articles, for example, continue to broadcast uncritically ‘complaints’ of people who are complaining not because of some objective wrong they have suffered, but because of fairly obvious psychological reasons.

To complain effectively, you have to show that there is some objective wrong you have suffered (that’s not 100% accurate: organisations with effective complaint handling mechanisms will support complainants to identify if there is an objective wrong they have suffered).

So let’s turn to Mark’s complaint about the ABC:

I have commented on this problem previously. Tonight you featured an interview between Chis Uhlmann and Abbott, who is busily constructing political wedges to further his power grabbing agenda.

Okay, so we’re off to a bad start.  While we’ve identified what we’re complaining about (‘an interview between Chris Uhlmann and Abbott’), we’ve managed to get side-tracked by our opinions about the Opposition Leader (‘busily constructing political wedges to further his power grabbing agenda’).

Rather than focus on [the Prime Minister’s trip to North Asia], we were regaled with a glad handled interview with Abbott roaming around remote communities pushing his fear campaign on the carbon tax and pushing an agenda on Aboriginal welfare that is hypocritical in the extreme

The complaint, taken literally, is that the ABC hasn’t covered something that we wanted in favour of covering something that we don’t want.  Further, the coverage we don’t want is done in a style that we don’t want (‘glad handled’).

We haven’t identified any objective reasons why this is a problem.  Why isn’t the Opposition Leader newsworthy?  Should half the program be dedicated to the Government and half to the Opposition?  What then of the minority parties?

 It came across as a political infomercial. I’m heartily sick of this overt bias and will take my complaint to the relevant Minister if this program cannot return to a balanced approach under your charter. Uhlman has been a serial offender in this regard and Sales is lightweight. Her interview with Lindsay Tanner was an opportunity lost and merely confirmed his take on a dumbing down of our media culture and a news analysis cycle pandering to people with little grasp of public policy processes & short concentration spans. It is demeaning our democracy and treating your audience with scant respect.

So what’s the objective complaint?  How can you tell that this is a legitimate complaint?

A complaint should have within it the seeds of resolution.  When we complain, it’s because we want some outcome.  When we complain about the ABC, we’re trying to get Corporate Affairs to understand that the ABC erred, and that the ABC should uphold its Charter in the way we want it to.  The above complaint doesn’t provide any resolution.  You either agree with us or you’re not even showing us ‘scant respect’.

The complaint failed.

The ABC outlined why the complaint failed (‘Audience and Consumer Affairs has concluded that the interview is in keeping with section 4.1 and 4.3 of the ABC Editorial Policies’).

You have two options when your complaint fails.  You can either cut your losses and go on with your life, or you can try to find a reason why the decision was flawed.

Mark has a third option: attack the decision-makers:

As with my previous complaints this has been handled with typical bureaucratic dissembling

For all I know, it might be true.  Mark’s complaint might have gone to the Bureaucratic Dissembling division of the ABC.  What Mark’s response doesn’t show is why the complaint was not handled correctly.  A lot of this has to do with the complaint being irresolvable (because it’s based on interpretation of events rather than on objective, measurable fact).

Earlier, I noted that an organisation with an effective complaints handling mechanism will help complainants to identify the objective wrong.  The ABC sent Mark this response:

Thank you for your email.

Should you wish to substantiate your claims regarding the manner in which ALP and Greens members are interviewed on the program, or the contributions of what you refer to as “extreme right commentators”, we will be happy to investigate any specific examples you are able to identify and will provide you with a considered response. Please include the time and date of the specific broadcasts that concerned you.

Your comments are noted.

Instead of concentrating on vague trends, themes, and patterns, ABC has tried to draw attention to specific examples.  If we can identify exactly what’s bothering us, we give authorities the opportunity to respond appropriately.  This was Mark’s response:

I appreciate it is difficult to respond to these complaints. However, the trend I identify is real and of great concern. I published my complaints and your reply on a couple of national political bogs. I got strong support from their readership. Uhlmann has been a disaster for the ratings of 7.30. Reasonable viewers are deserting in droves. It was once compulsory viewing for politics tragics like myself but now it is unwatchable. It would be difficult to provide specific examples in future as I have simply turned off.

A lot of this comes down to effective communication.  How do we convince others that we’re correct?  How can we give others the opportunity to act in our favour?  It’s not totally a one-way street: organisations have a responsibility to assist complainants and facilitate criticism.

So here are Only the Sangfroid’s Three Rules of Complaining More Awesomely:

1. Be clear and precise about the nature of the complaint.  You want to position your argument such that no reasonable, rational person could deny that you were wronged.

2. Think about the resolution you would like and write the complaint so that it facilitates that resolution (if you’re very clever, you can write complaints so that your preferred resolution is the only possible, logical resolution).  You want to guide complaints so that they’re in your favour.

3.  If your complaint is unsuccessful, identify procedural flaws.  You are no longer discussing questions of fact, you are questioning whether the process was applied correctly and fairly.

Follow these three rules, and you’ll become a highly successful complainer.  Will you use your powers for good or awesome?


Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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