Triple J's four step guide to holding your nerve on a big decision


Whether you back Triple J’s move to change the date of the Hottest 100 or not, you've got to admit they have a lot of nerve.

Fierce debate continues to rage around Australia Day, with politicians, community groups, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and countless others weighing in. In the middle of all that is Triple J’s flagship event.

The countdown of the Hottest 100 songs of the year had become an anchor for Australia Day barbecues nationwide, and, for that reason, highly politicised. Triple J faced tough lobbying from across the political divide.

Whatever they did was guaranteed to be contentious, with serious repercussions.

It may be overstating it to say ABC CEO Michelle Guthrie and Board Chair Justin Milne lost their jobs over it, but Milne’s efforts to block the decision have been seen as a turning point. Add to that countless column inches and talkback minutes, and of course deep wells of social media commentary, and faced with the same pressure, anyone might cave. You only need to look at the failed decision by Coles to phase out plastic shopping bags, and Carlton Dry’s full page ads last week, throwing out the new ring top pulls on their beer bottles.

So what made this decision by Triple J different? Fundamentally, it was a textbook response from station management, in four key steps.

1. They kept their community informed
It’s tempting to drop a decision like this as a ‘done deal’ at the last minute to avoid being derailed along the way. But the reality is, now, a campaign can escalate in hours or even minutes.

Delivering your decision as one that will brook no opposition is a risky strategy unless you really will brook no opposition.

Throughout the process, Triple J hosts discussed the issues on-air, including a special edition of the flagship current affairs program Hack, online news stories and detailed Q&A posts, as well as responses on media and social media. By the time the decision was made, everyone knew what to expect.

2. They did the legwork of consulting with stakeholders
While most managers will agree engagement is good in principle, if the people you’re talking with turn against the proposal then it might help scale up a counter campaign. That’s a risk, but even worse would be having the initiative fall over because you got the policy settings wrong or because opposition grew among people who didn’t properly understand it.

Triple J took 10 months out to meet with musicians, community leaders and representative groups. They got Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander media involved, language groups and many of the Indigenous artists played on the station. The ABC’s advisory body on issues relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, content and communities were engaged, as well as the likes of the National Australia Day Council, National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, Reconciliation Australia and Recognise. Again, no surprises.

3. They took all that back to their audience
The risk for management is, even having done the legwork on stakeholder engagement, you might wind up with a decision that makes sense to staff and stakeholders but doesn’t wash with customers – in this case the listeners.

Documents tabled with the Senate Estimates Committee on Environment and Communications show the station spent $38,000 surveying their audience. Almost 65,000 responded and 60 per cent supported the change – just 1 per cent had no view and the remainder (39 per cent) opposed. A second, quantitative survey of 759 18-30 year olds who had listened to the station showed consistent support for changing the date (55 per cent), with 24 per cent against and 22 per cent who didn’t have a view. They had the numbers.

4. They considered the likely complaints ahead of time
Hindsight is 20/20, but it’s galling to see organisations that seem to have barely considered likely responses to their decisions. By wading into territory that’s almost by definition risky and then caving under the pressure of an all too predictable campaign, the reality is it weakens them, perhaps even fatally, for the next time they want (or need) to make a tough decision.

There was predictably strong opposition. Communications Minister Mitch Fifield was “bewildered”. Twitter lit up. But Triple J management could point to their survey results, they knew where community, Indigenous leaders and others stood. They had kept people informed and they had messaging ready to argue the case.

Sometimes you get a decision wrong, and leaders who batten down the hatches on a mistake are no use to anyone. The scale and severity of a backlash can be over the top too, and if it’s life or death for your organisation, you have to do what you have to do.

But if you go through a comprehensive process like Triple J did, listening to your stakeholders and customers, communicating right the way through, and checking again before you go live, then you’re less likely to be surprised. When it comes to holding your nerve, that’s most of the job done before you’ve even made the announcement.