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What I Learned About Communications in Yellowknife

Last week, I had the pleasure of delivering the Results Map Masters Program in strategic communications to the communications community of the Government of Northwest Territories (GNWT).

It was an absolute pleasure to collaborate with such a passionate, dynamic group of communicators working in one of the most challenging communications landscapes around – serving a community of 43,000 people spread across 1.2 million square kilometres and operating in an environment of 11 official languages. The GNWT communicators provide an important service to citizens spread across 33 communities in some of the most remote and culturally distinct regions in Canada.

As this was my first experience visiting and working in the North, the trip provided one of the richest learning experiences of my career. Here are some highlights of what I learned:

Necessity is the mother of invention. As governments go, the GNWT is small, and communicators are tasked with delivering a massive mandate with relatively few resources. No doubt as a direct result, we found some of the most savvy, resourceful and creative communicators we’ve ever had a chance to work with, anywhere. The most striking characteristic of the communicators we met is that they have heart – they are doing work that matters in a particularly challenging set of circumstances, and they do so with passion and a palpable commitment to the citizens they serve.

Consensus government. The government of NWT operates on a model of consensus government in which there are no political parties and the cabinet is voted in by the elected Premier. This governance structure and culture creates unique communications opportunities and challenges in which communicators operate in an especially dynamic and fluid issue environment.

Mixology and mittens. Visiting Yellowknife is a lesson in genuine warmth in hospitality. We were treated to an extraordinarily generous and kind welcome by the Corporate Communications team. Among the many firsts we experienced during our visit was to have a client who generously invited us to her home for an amazing evening of mixology, and patiently drove us all around town to find the perfect locally crafted mittens as souvenirs.

One size does not fit all. The diversity of audiences in the NWT is breathtaking. There are many different communities and cultures with an incredible range of information and service needs. In this environment of complexity there is no simple solution to providing effective communication. Designing communications messages and programs is part art and part science, requiring a high degree of sensitivity and know-how. Whereas in the “South” one might be able to reach a large audience quickly and efficiently with the click of a tweet, the northern experience takes much more effort and time. Some of the main channels include tapping into the network of local and CB radio stations, partnerships with local associations and stakeholder groups, and the extraordinary outreach work done by Government Service Officers who live and work in the most remote NWT communities (see this video for an award-winning example of such community-based outreach delivered with cultural sensitivity and care).

Moccasins as business casual. There is a refreshingly low-key vibe in the Yellowknife work environment. Because everyone knows each other and lives and works in a small, tight knit community, you don’t find the usual trappings of more impersonal and formal business environments. There is certainly something to be said about sporting moccasins as business casual wear.

We are grateful for the extraordinary opportunity to work with the remarkable GNWT communications team. I look forward to watching and celebrating their ongoing successes in delivering a creative, strategic and compassionate approach to government communications.


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