ABC staff have been told they will have to develop “thicker skins” under a new system for handling complaints, which lays a heavy emphasis on encouraging audience members to make their gripes public by using online forums and social networking platforms.

The ABC will develop a distinctive new symbol, which will be run on all ABC platforms and heavily promoted on radio and television, to signal to the audience how they can complain, correct, argue with and interact with the ABC and its content makers.

The changes to the ABC’s self-regulation framework, announced today, are described as a “renovation” rather than a replacement of the existing system, but they include fundamental alterations in institutional structure and corporate attitudes designed to respond to the impact of new media technology, while not leaving behind non-internet savvy members of the audience.

The review of the ABC’s complaints-handling mechanism is the first to be conducted away from the heat of controversy. The present complex system, while the most rigorous of any Australian media organisation, developed partly in response to pressure, particularly from the Howard government.

The changes were announced to staff this morning, and the review report should be posted here later today. It anticipates a more interactive media landscape in which audience members can themselves become “broadcasters” of information.

The report, which has been “signed off” by the ABC board, says that the internet allows audience members to “swiftly air … their grievances, suggestions or praise. They can do this direct to the responsible content-makers and to other members of the audience on the program’s website. They can assert that the ABC is in error … and provide what they believe to be the correct information.”

This, the report says, is a very different environment from that in which media self-regulation mechanisms have developed. Participating in online forums can be faster and more effective than writing letters or making complaints. Search engines and social networking meant that audience members’ contributions can be easily found by people with an interest in the program content.

But, the report says, because not all audience members are comfortable with using the internet, and in the interests of rigorous accountability, changes need to be phased in and more formal complaints mechanisms will continue alongside online options.

Important changes announced today include a gradual phasing out of the ABC’s complex three-tier internal complaints structure in favour of a simpler system. The decision makers on complaints will have greater powers to make findings against content makers, but over time there will also be a move to giving more responsibility to program managers for dealing directly with complainants, with an emphasis on swift posting of corrections and clarifications.

Other changes include more emphasis on training in editorial standards and complaints handling. (For more on what the changes mean for ABC staff, see The Content Makers blog.)

All ABC online platforms will be obliged to include a symbol that links to information on the various options audience members have to argue and complain. The introduction of the symbol, and its meaning, will be heavily promoted on radio and television.

Audience members will be offered a range of options, including making their complaint public in an online forum, either instead of or as well as a formal complaints process.

Formal complaints will be handled by the audience and consumer affairs unit, which will have the power to decide a matter without having to reach agreement with program makers. The department will also have the discretion to return matters to program staff and local managers for handling.

Draft findings on complaints will be given to the appropriate content director, who can seek a second opinion from the newly created position of editorial complaints adviser, who will consider the draft finding together with any arguments from ABC staff. However, this second opinion will not be binding on the decision maker.

ABC managing director and editor in chief Mark Scott will have the power to intervene at any stage.

Complainants will still have the statutory right to appeal to the Australian Communications and Media Authority about breaches of the ABC’s code of practice if they are unhappy with the organisation’s handling of the matter.

An ABC spokeswoman this morning said that the new logo for the complaints system had not yet been designed, and it is not yet known when it will appear on ABC platforms. However, I understand the new system will become visible within months.

The review of the ABC’s complaints system has been in progress for a while. It was announced by Scott more than a year ago, as reported by Crikey.

Scott said then that he wanted the process reviewed when there was no crisis. He said that normally complaints processes were critiqued and reviewed in the heat of a controversy, and the accusatory atmosphere “does the process no good”.

Before this review, the complaints process received its most recent renovation amid the acrimony of the infamous Alston complaints, made by the then Minister for Communications, about the ABC’s coverage of the Iraq war.