Thursday, December 17, 2020

'Wholesale burndown': Concerns growing over the South African public broadcaster's 'quite short-sighted' and 'arrogantly clueless' plan to get rid of all SABC TV channels' publicists in its retrenchment plan.

by Thinus Ferreira

Concerns are growing inside the SABC, as well as with media outside, about the South African public broadcaster's apparently "quite short-sighted", "wholly misguided" and uninformed plan - labelled a "wholesale burndown" - to get rid of all publicists across all of the SABC's TV channels as part of its latest retrenchment plan. 

Multiple of the institution's divisions and enterprises across the entire SABC have been affected by the section 189 process to downsize the over-staffed SABC's personnel costs, with some like SABC News that quickly itself became the news last month when redundancy notices were handed out.

While the South African public and media last month saw SABC News anchor and reporter Chriselda Lewis chastise apparently clueless and uninformed SABC top execs like COO Ian Plaatjes in videos that quickly went viral, many more SABC staffers in many other divisions are extremely unhappy as well.

While they are dealing with the same issues, they haven't spoken out about their plight, trying to keep up a dignified front despite tears, anxiety and fear about their futures behind-the-scenes.

According to sources, these staffers - from SABC Radio to commercial enterprises and many other divisions - are bearing the brunt of over-zealous bosses who are "cutting down to make numbers".

At the SABC's Northern Cape-based radio station, XKFM, all 11 staffers for instance got retrenchment letters, with staff openly wondering how the broadcaster will possibly be able to continue to broadcast in the !Xu and !Khwe San languages if they're all gone.

On top of so-described "cold retrenchment letters", rank-and-file SABC staffers are now dealing with their own fears, resentment and anger, as well as what they claim is top executives and their line managers' alleged uninformed cookie-cutter approach to "cutting down numbers on spreadsheets" in various divisions simply to "reach the desired headcount".

Staffers say that instead of knowing what workers are really doing, finding out what their real job descriptions entail and listening as to why certain jobs are actually essential to the SABC, "we're willy-nilly put in the expendable category so they [managers] can keep their jobs safe".

One such "division" facing complete annihilation within the SABC's broad-based retrenchment plan is the SABC's coterie of publicists - the PR people at SABC1, SABC2 and SABC3.

These SABC1, SABC2 and SABC3 publicists are the ones who deal with media enquiries about programming, issue schedules and programming highlights and updates, write and send out the press releases about programmes, and who liaise with media about interviews with talent.

They handle stills and photo request ("high res please") and is the first port of call and often the stopgap frontline receivers of the unending barrage of media requests that neither programming managers at the SABC's TV channels nor anybody else wants to directly deal with.

Inexplicably, the SABC has given all of these publicists their marching orders.

The move has caused the media at newspapers, magazines and online media who depend on publicists as the go-between, to openly wonder who is actually going to do the work and take over the thankless task of dealing with the myriad of important, and less important, media enquiries that constantly stream in and that would quickly overwhelm the SABC's corporate affairs communications team.

Instead of axing all of its programming publicists at the SABC, the broadcaster in fact needs to have and do much, much more in this field.

Over just the past 5 years the SABC, ensconced in a seeming isolated bubble of its own, has been vastly outstripped and outpaced when it comes to the issuing of programming highlights, the availability of basic publicity material for shows, press events, season-related photography and proper media engagement and liaison.

The SABC doesn't even have a press portal where media can log in to download imagery, episode synopsis, schedules, logos or related press materials that have all become a basic de facto must for international and other TV channels, as well as streaming services like Netflix.

Long-forgotten at the SABC are set visits, while competing TV channels fill journalists' diaries with real-world, on-set junkets, and during 2020, with a never-ending stream of local and international virtual media engagement and set visits.

While local and global TV channels as well as streamers soak up the available attention and time and inundate journalists' inboxes with links to digital screeners of new and upcoming programming and series in order for them to watch and review shows before broadcast, the SABC does nothing.

As video streaming services like Netflix SA, Showmax, Amazon Prime Video and others started to flourish in South Africa - alongside pay-TV channels from BBC Studios to NBCUniversal, HBO and many others that are repping directly into South Africa with their overseas PR teams or have appointed dedicated locally-based PR companies - the SABC keeps fallen further and further behind when it comes to putting actual resources behind programming publicity for SABC1, SABC2, SABC3 and SABC News.

The public broadcaster has failed and not kept pace with bolstering, building out and smart-tuning its various TV channel publicity teams or strategies with its severely eroded group of publicists - in number the smallest they have ever been in 2 decades since the glory days of Suzette Pretorius - currently overseen by Zandile Nkonyeni as head of PR for SABC TV channels.

Quarterly press previews for SABC1, SABC2 and SABC3 that used to be de rigueur for years have all but disappeared half a decade ago with SABC3 that used to be the lone holdout of a once proud and effective media engagement tradition until that channel also folded the informative practice.

Meanwhile, SABC3 is down to just one publicist for an entire channel, SABC1 struggles with juniorisation of staff where publicity materials are often late, irrelevant or mistake-filled and where just 2 publicists try to answer media requests of the SABC's biggest TV channel; while SABC2 publicists would be told external PR companies are handling certain properties who would then fail to deliver or to actually properly liaise with media.

According to SABC insiders - people with knowledge of some of the plans and sentiments expressed inside the SABC but who are not directly involved and who are speaking on condition of anonymity - Merlin Naicker, the SABC's latest head of SABC Television, apparently wants "publicity" and marketing for all of the SABC's individual TV channels to shift to reside inside the corporate communications team headed up by Gugu Ntuli, the SABC's head of corporate affairs and marketing.

Here, other insiders who also spoke on condition of anonymity, told TVwithThinus that there is "in a bizarre way no place" for any of the existing publicists at SABC1, SABC2 or SABC3 within the envisioned structure.

While none of these publicists have been approached or asked about this for this report, the understanding is that there would only be 2 media relations positions and a general, so-called "communications manager" or a job description to that effect, in Gugu Ntuli's proposed restructured division.

This makes it extremely unlikely that any of the SABC1, SABC2 or SABC3 publicists currently on "death-row" have any realistic chance of being kept on post the SABC's retrenchment process. 

It also makes it extremely unlikely that the SABC in-house will be able to do any kind of half-decent programming publicity effort for these channels' content - something that the SABC is already struggling to do properly because of a lack of staff and resources.

Outsourcing it to one or more external PR companies would mean hat publicists with no history or knowledge of brands or shows would be in charge, and likely also cost more to drum up earned media exposure for SABC shows - again defeating the purpose of a retrenchment exercise.

Ironically while the SABC needs to do much more publicity for its TV channels and their content line-ups, it is deliberately choosing to downsize a crucial job within the broadcaster to less.

"It's quite short-sighted" and "wholly misguided" said one source, with another longtime executive who described it as "a wholesale burndown of the last of what is left of publicity for TV if you can still call it that, here".

The SABC this week on Tuesday held a virtual media engagement through Microsoft Teams to unveil a new "SABC Tours" video.

Afterwards, during the Q&A session, TVwithThinus posed a question and asked why the SABC is apparently fine to completely do away with publicists at all of its TV channels, why the SABC no longer considers the crucial job of TV channel publicist as important, and how the SABC thinks that it would be able to keep the press properly and effectively informed about what it is showing on television without actual programming publicists.

"The current processes underway are exploring all options and I'm very certain that whatever has been tabled will be duly considered and the right structures will come into effect," said Gugu Ntuli in response to the question.