In the Arctic, Public Relations (PR) is probably more about “relations” than anywhere else: building relations with local communities is not the goal – it’s the undisputed starting point.
This is my experience from 20+ years of public relations, communications and community relations work in the Arctic – the major part of that has focused on Greenland but it has gradually extended to Northern Canada, Iceland and the Arctic parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland.
You may argue that building genuine relationships is at the core of any PR effort, and you would be right. My experience, though, is that we as PR practitioners are often challenged with projects that don’t always allow for opportunities to meet with and hear local perspectives. In many cases, that is okay. However, prior analysis and consultation are necessities when conducting PR activities in the Arctic; approaches need to be local and appropriate, and practitioners need to understand what tactics fit with local needs.
I would like to offer you a few facts & considerations that I feel are important – together with some advice on how to navigate these icy waters (and rocky coastlines) in the future.
1 – The Arctic of today is not the Arctic of yesterday
Almost all of the Arctic consists of smaller communities, difficult and expensive to get to and from: obviously this is because of their isolation from more industrialized societies and from each other. But where geography, climate and lack of economy-of-scale still present challenges to economic development, it is no longer a hindrance to their cooperation. Arctic communities, societies and nations are working together more closely and are forming not only alliances but also establishing their own understanding of the Arctic and all aspects of living in the region.
2 – Communities are the hub of everything in the Arctic
Every society or nation consists of communities, but in the Arctic, daily life centers around the local community – be it small or large – so much more than in other places. This presents a fundamentally different approach to a number of important aspects and actions when dealing with decision makers in the Arctic.
3 – Local knowledge is king
A lot of people/companies/organizations come to the Arctic eager to contribute industrial development/to raise the level of education/save the climate, and so on. Most of them are indeed honest and committed to their efforts, and even those who are there for profit only acknowledge that their activities must benefit local societies. That’s great – but it doesn’t address the fact that the help was probably never asked for, the benefits suggested for society are not those needed most, and the help to combat climate change is very appreciated but would those coming from the outside the Arctic start by ‘curing’ climate problems at their place of departure (which are most likely causing the Arctic’s present climate related problems)?
Picture: helicopters are the quickest way to visit remote communities, but the high costs and optics are something to be considered
Always start local
In short, locals are the experts in the Arctic. You may be able to contribute specialist knowledge, finances or resources not present locally – but you are doing a disservice if you do not establish a starting point – or at least a very early consultation – with the locals. There is an enormous wealth of knowledge amongst locals in the Arctic – and this is being acknowledged more and more recently; entities as different as scientific research institutions, climate experts, archeologists and historians, geologists, and commercial companies are turning to local knowledge to work side by side with those ‘experts’.
My humble advice can be boiled down to the following:
- Always start with the locals: ask for their story, their knowledge, their wishes and their assessments. You may get a faster start by pressing on from the beginning – but you risk being stopped or delayed at a later point – and you are sure to lose the important knowledge and commitment they may contribute along the way.
- Visit the communities as early as possible – and never press your agenda at the first visit: be honest and open about your background and intentions but spend all your time on the first visit listening. In short, save the details and the project plan to the second visit.
- Go to the top – but not to the top only: procedures exist and are well functioning for most initiatives proposed and should obviously be followed – on a national, regional or municipal level according to the situation. But bear in mind that especially smaller communities or special interests may not be part of this process until a very late stage. Liaising with these levels of government at an early stage not only builds your credibility but also may provide valuable information.
- Ask how you can contribute to the community in a way that really supports long term development and benefits to the locals – without risking causing negative side effects.
Pay respect, listen to the locals, take the long-term view – and enjoy it!
Jan Boman heads the activities of PRN in Denmark as well as in Greenland, working from offices in both Copenhagen and Nuuk.