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Moving Mountains to Draw Attention to Sacred Navajo Land

Entered in On a Shoestring


In northern Arizona, the majestic San Francisco Peaks are among the most sacred of all places to the Navajo Nation. Since 2012, a private ski resort (on lands leased from the U.S. Forest Service to Arizona Snowbowl) has used reclaimed sewage wastewater to create artificial snow there. Navajo activists have chained themselves to excavators, faced down bulldozers and called for a boycott of Snowbowl. When the Navajo Nation learned in August 2014 that the City of Flagstaff had signed a new 20-year wastewater renewal agreement without notice to the nation or an opportunity for consultation or public comment, it decided to act.

With the help of the University of Arizona's Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program (IPLP; a Havas PR client), the Navajo Nation filed a petition in March 2015 with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to declare the U.S. government in violation of human rights. Because of the magnitude of the issue, the IPLP enlisted Havas PR as a PR partner with experience in advocating for human rights.

The goal: Keep a light on the ongoing disenfranchisement of indigenous people by getting the accurate story told in as many outlets as possible. While the petition would serve as a diplomatic tool and a way to inject this story into the news once more, it would be media relations that would really get the issue front and center with governing bodies, indigenous influencers, human rights activists, policymakers, media and the general public.

Strategy and Execution

In the words of indigenous rights expert Rob Williams, co-chair of IPLP, "We want people to take another look at this issue through the lens of international human rights law."

To meet our client's goals of raising awareness of the issue and ultimately having the courts rule in favor of the Navajo Nation and the IPLP, Havas PR worked to position the nation and the indigenous rights representatives as experts on the matter through thoughtful media outreach.

Our strategy and solution: Meet one on one with journalists to deliver the facts and make them clear and accessible. Through our strategic process and experience with human rights campaigns, we knew this would help decrease confusion and draw widespread attention to the need for protection of indigenous rights both locally and nationally. (The best of the reporting gave the crisis a human face; The Arizona Republic led its in-depth cover story with quotes by Navajo healer Jones Benally, in his 90s, who told the newspaper via a translator, "In creation, it is said the mountains were placed here by the holy people. I collect medicinal plants and vegetation from the San Francisco Peaks because it's very powerful. This is our land; it is our shield. It is the land that protects us, and we stand behind it.")

Our media strategy ensured that consistent messaging would reach key audiences. We focused, for example, on delivering the messages that "the Navajo people have been waging their fight against the expansion of private ski resort operations on the San Francisco Peaks since the 1970s" and discussing how the case had gone previously all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and consistently lost.

Our agency first drafted a press release detailing the history of the issue and the current crisis; we distributed it two days after the Navajo Nation filed its petition to the OAS IACHR. In consultation with the IPLP, Havas PR decided to disclose the official petition face to face with key reporters and influencers in the areas of human rights policy and indigenous rights.

We personalized the official legalese of the 25-page complaint by offering and facilitating all briefings and in-person interviews with experts Williams and Anaya, and with key members of the Navajo Nation. Among our offers, we invited a reporter to travel up to Snowbowl to get an idea of the area and talk to members of the indigenous groups, and we accompanied her on the trip. Havas PR prioritized the most influential global and indigenous news organizations and offered background materials to those interested in telling the story.

In addition, efforts extend throughout social media, including Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, to disseminate the information. Havas PR crafted tweets and updates about the Snowbowl case and any new media coverage, which professors and other staff from the IPLP and the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law shared on both official and personal Twitter and Facebook pages.


We measured success by our creation of winning media matches and from the number of quality stories generated, but also by the quick progression of this case. The news momentum and national awareness Havas PR has generated has sparked attention in Washington, D.C., around the country and with global human rights leaders, leading to a greater focus on the crisis. Quite significantly, in June 2015, IACHR Chair Rose-Marie Belle Antoine visited Flagstaff to discuss the sacred site's protection.

Our careful media outreach led to an original 517-word story by the Associated Press that appeared three weeks after the petition was filed. News outlets worldwide picked up the piece, from ABC News and Native American Times to publications in markets big (Miami, Oklahoma City, San Francisco, Seattle), small (Santa Fe, N.M.; Stamford, Conn.; Flagstaff, Ariz.) and international (the U.K.'s Daily Mail, The New Zealand Herald and Yahoo! Finance UK & Ireland). Combined with original stories in The Arizona Republic (two articles), Indian Country Today, and KTAR News radio in Phoenix, this burst of coverage reached almost 203 million total media impressions.

As a result of the petition and our work around it, the Navajo Nation has been inserted irrevocably back into the media's conversations about Snowbowl, which ramp up each year around ski season. Because the Navajo Nation and the IPLP were given a voice that carries farther than any protestor's megaphone ever could, those in Flagstaff and beyond now know exactly what is at stake for the Navajo.


Entrant Company / Organization Name

Havas PR North America, University of Arizona Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program


Entry Credits