PR Postcard from...Anchorage, the Alaska you don't see on TV

Kristin Helvey, a PR pro living in The Last Frontier's most populous city, talks about the mystery and reality of her home state.

Every conference I go to, I always get asked (mostly) jokingly: do you live in igloos? Do you drive dogsleds? It’s amazing what people don’t understand about Alaska.

It has all this mystery and beauty that people see, but in our urban areas we’re just like other cities.

We’re in a relatively small market but we have an amazingly active, high-caliber PR community. Our local PRSA chapter, founded more than 30 years ago, has over 200 members, including more than 20 APRs.

Anchorage has a wide range of PR firms from independent practitioners to larger agencies such as Thompson & Co, which is based here but has offices in New York and Houston. We may not have the same name recognition, but we have a national reputation through the caliber of talent we bring to the table.

Alaska really imprints itself on you. Some hate it because it’s too cold, rural, and disconnected, but to others it becomes home very quickly.

About half of the state’s population lives in the Anchorage area. The city is much like any other, with its thriving art culture and huge foodie movement, but outside the urban area the state looks very different.

I grew up in Bristol Bay. There were no roads in or out and some of my friends had to fly to school every day via air taxi, though once the river froze people could drive back and forth.

The high cost of living and low access to necessities resulted in a huge influx of people to Anchorage over the past couple decades. They’re not only leaving their homes, but also their subsistence ways of life. I’m Alaskan native on my dad’s side. We grew up fishing, harvesting berries, and smoking fish. Those things are ingrained in people’s way of life.

There is a now a great cultural movement in Anchorage as people work hard to revitalize these cultures and invigorate it here. That’s been significant for communicators in how we approach, reach, and work with people.

In the urban Anchorage school district more than 90 languages are spoken. For a while, the small Mountain View area of the city was considered one of the most diverse communities in the country. Many cultures converge in Alaska, partly because of the military presence in Anchorage and Fairbanks.

As communicators, we constantly have to find new tools relevant to both groups. Social media is an amazing way to connect people, but some places in Alaska are still on dial-up. We have to be cognizant of that, especially when we set up campaigns.

There’s a tension between latching onto new trends from everywhere else while sometimes having to be more creative in how we apply them. We also have to hold onto traditional practices. In rural communities, local radio is much more important than any other tools you could use.

Everything happens by season here. In lots of areas, even urban, hunting and fishing seasons are off limits - people stop what they’re doing and focus on that. Creating a campaign or project to engage people during those seasons would be difficult.

You have to know the differences between communities. Lots of people say "Alaska Native Culture," but that’s not just one thing - there are hundreds of cultures within it. If you’re trying to connect with those places, you have to understand the nuances.

 ALASKA
POPULATION: 739,828
MOST POPULOUS CITY: Anchorage
CAPITAL: Juneau
GDP: $52.7 billion, ranked 46th in the U.S. (2015)
GDP PER CAPITA: $74,377 (2015)
UNEMPLOYMENT RATE: 7.4%
INDUSTRIES: oil, tourism, fishing, timber, mining, agriculture

NEWSPAPERS
Alaska Dispatch News, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Juneau Empire, Alaska Journal of Commerce, Peninsula Clarion

TV
KTUU 2 (NBC), KTVA 11 (CBS), KYUR 13 (ABC and The CW)/KTBY 4 (FOX), KTVF 11 (NBC), KAKM-TV (PBS)

RADIO
KNBA (KBC, NPR, PRI, CPR), KRBD FM Rainbird Community Radio, KSKA 91.1 FM (NPR)

INFLUENTIAL COMPANIES
Providence Health System, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, Southcentral Foundation, ASRC Energy Services, ConocoPhillips Alaska, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, BP Exploration, University of Alaska, Alaska Airlines, Anchorage Convention & Visitors Bureau

PR AGENCIES
Thompson & Co. Public Relations, MSI Communications, Northwest Strategies, Brilliant, Media Strategies, Spawn Ideas, Walsh Sheppard

Image caption: Downtown Anchorage, Alaska, and the Chugach Mountains as seen from the shores of Cook Inlet on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.

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