Alaska Native Corporations Harness the Power of Media
Spreading the word to share history, culture
When Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC) first aired TV commercials featuring the tagline, “A Place That’s Always Been,” the reaction was surprising. Not only because they received numerous accolades and marketing awards for the campaign but because, at the time, it was rare for Alaska Native corporations to market themselves through the media.
“Prior to us launching the campaign eight years ago, Alaska Native corporations weren’t known for promoting themselves in the public beyond reaching out to our own shareholders,” explains BBNC President and CEO Jason Metrokin.
“Some of the elders on our board were concerned that everyone—from the state and federal government, to resource developers, to commercial fishermen and recreational users—had plans for Bristol Bay, so we decided that we needed to create a voice for ourselves,” he adds. “We wanted everyone to understand the value of our culture, our land holdings, and our region.”
In the case of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC), its foray into outside media gained attention when the corporation decided to update a cultural orientation video, which led to the airing of the now award-winning True North, The Story of ASRC documentary. The film features the history of ASRC and offers viewers an authentic view into the Iñupiat way of life.
“When I began assembling the footage, it became clear to me that we should steer away from a typical educational corporation video and present it as a longer format piece,” says ASRC Senior Director of Communications Ty Hardt. “Our original goal was to educate the public about ASRC’s humble beginnings and how a well-defined vision based on Iñupiat values created a successful for-profit corporation that exists for the long-term benefit of its people. Telling it in a very personalized, inspirational way reinforced our message and brand.”
Creating Award-winning Campaigns
Having rebranded a few years prior with a new logo and other marketing components, BBNC was open to the idea of sharing its story through mass media channels.
“We started an ad campaign that included print, television, and ultimately social media,” says Metrokin. “Our TV ads’ vivid, simple, disciplined message seemed to attract people the most.
“The tagline is now quoted regularly by our shareholders and has even been said by multiple former governors,” he adds. “Is it a household phrase? I’ll leave that to others to decide.”
One of the more surprising takeaways from the campaign, according to Metrokin, is that those who have seen the TV spots remember more than what was actually said.
Attorneys Bill Van Ness and Jim Wickwire are interviewed for True North, the Story of ASRC in early 2016.
Jacob Adams Sr. “They said that when he was in the room, he was always the smartest attorney there,” says Ty Hardt, who interviewed Adams for the documentary.
“We have a thriving culture, history, and economy in Bristol Bay, but at the time these aired, the proposed Pebble Mine posed an underlying threat to the region,” he says. “While we never uttered the words Pebble Mine, not even once, when we ask people what they recall, they talk about the mine.”
BBNC’s internal communications team worked with the public relations firm Strategies 360, as well as a number of skilled photographers and videographers. “Their collective talent knocked it out of the park,” says Metrokin, adding that not a day goes by when he doesn’t hear from people commenting positively on the campaign.
In the past eight years, BBNC’s media marketing has focused on a variety of themes including courage, balance, culture, and heritage.
“In the early days, we knew we wanted to build upon our brand and impress upon folks who and what we were,” says Metrokin. “Not a lot of people get to come out to Bristol Bay, so we wanted to find a way to bring it to them. Lots of people in the state watch TV, so we thought this was a good way to bring Bristol Bay to Anchorage, Juneau, Fairbanks, and other Alaskan communities.”
BBNC is currently in the process of creating a new campaign that will feature the tagline, “More Than a Corporation.”
“The term ‘corporation’ has a negative connotation to some folks, and we want people to understand that we are about more than profits and the bottom line,” says Metrokin. “We focus on our community, culture, the diversity of our workforce, and being good stewards of our land base. While we are not hiding the fact that we are a for-profit, tax-paying corporation, our entire history has been about supporting our people and all of the residents of Alaska.”
Ty Hardt interviews team members from ASRC’s early days. Pictured left to right: Jim Wickwire, Alan Mintz, Bill Van Ness, Oliver Leavitt, Steve Seward.
Hardt, who came from a news background before joining ASRC, knew that media could be used to not only convey a message but to reinforce a company’s brand. While putting together a 60-minute documentary instead of an educational video required a lot more work—the final product actually took more than two years to come to fruition—he had the full backing of the corporation as the project came together.
“ASRC’s leadership was absolutely instrumental in making this happen,” he says of filming, which took him to every community on the North Slope as well as to cities in the Lower 48 where ASRC’s subsidiaries are located. “They had no hesitation about creating a longer format piece.”
The documentary originally aired on KTUU, KTVF, and the Alaska Rural Communication Service. After winning an Emmy from the Northwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2017, it aired statewide. Hardt wrote and directed the video, co-produced with Tara Sweeney, and collaborated with Brilliant Media Strategies in Anchorage and Stage 2 Studios in Colorado, which had produced an Emmy-winning commercial for ASRC two years before.
“It became something really special,” says Hardt of the documentary, which also serves as a time capsule for the corporation. Hardt interviewed some of the original team members, including Oliver Leavitt, Bill Van Ness, Jim Wickwire, Alan Mintz, Steve Seward, and Jacob Adams Sr., who helped with incorporation in the early ’70s.
“They shared stories of back in the day when the earliest decisions were made,” says Hardt. “Here we are fifty years later, and you can see how what they did then made such a big difference.”
He adds that the opportunity to interview Bill Van Ness was really unique, as he was one of the people who helped craft the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) and was absolutely committed to ASRC’s mission. “Unfortunately, he has since passed away, and if we hadn’t done that documentary, we wouldn’t have had that interview,” says Hardt. “We wouldn’t know the stories behind the legacy.”
The documentary also helps ASRC introduce itself to people who may not be familiar with the corporation or Iñupiat values.
“I was in Seattle speaking to a vendor, and she didn’t know anything about ASRC,” says Hardt. “I popped the documentary up on my computer and she watched about 15 minutes of it and became very emotional. She said that it inspired her because it was the first time that she really understood our values and the people we represent.”
Other Alaska Native corporations, including Cape Fox Corporation in Saxman, are starting to take advantage of the power of media. In July 2020, Cape Fox received a bronze award in the Branded Content Category in the 41st Telly Awards, which honors excellence in video and television. Its video, about working at Cape Fox, is used to encourage recruitment and for onboarding new employees.