Every single summer, camps deal with crises. Whether it’s a nasty case of bed bugs, camper injury, financial mismanagement, or storm damage, camp management is risky.
If you’ve been in this business long enough, you can name a crisis or two that you have had to navigate. It’s rare to find a camp and retreat center that hasn’t had some level of crisis in its history.
As you wrap up another season of summer camp, I hope you are reading this and feeling thankful that you didn’t have anything significant happen this summer. Whew.
I asked Casey Fuerst, Owner of Tic Tac Toe Marketing for Camps, to offer some advice for camps when dealing with a crisis. Casey has worked in and with summer camps for more than 20 years and has supported several organizations through challenging situations. Here’s what she has to say.
Before we dive into practical advice for working through a crisis, let’s define a crisis. A crisis is any disturbance in your organization that could result in public/constituent scrutiny and has the potential to cause long-term damage.
- An outbreak of disease (COVID, Mumps, etc…)
- Financial mismanagement
- Sexual misconduct
- Camper or staff injury or death
- Weather-related incidents that cause damage to people and property
- Bed bugs or head lice
- Bad reviews that get out of hand
- Bad behavior of staff members
It used to be that the goal of crisis communication was to control the message. Now, with social media, it’s nearly impossible to do so. So instead, we look to communicate clearly, consistently, and openly. Of course, you will rarely please everyone, so your response needs to be packed with integrity and intentionality.
We see it every summer – the rumor mill blows a situation out of proportion; an unhappy parent is super vocal in the local church about their camper’s bad week at camp; a seemingly innocent comment by a staff member is misconstrued as inappropriate, and their character is called into question. Social media has turned what used to be easily talked through situations into out-and-out crises.
Sometimes, it’s tough to know what the right thing to do is.
- Create a crisis communications plan. You cannot write a plan while dealing with a crisis. Trust me – you’ll be glad you did this!
- When a crisis hits, create a physical space for ground zero. Use a whiteboard to note facts, unknown information, speculations/rumors. Without this simple tool, our minds can let it all blur together and get overwhelming.
- Name the leadership team that is in charge. Who is the point of contact for public communication? Who is in charge of care for people? Who is in charge of working with key stakeholders? Who is answering phones, and what are they saying? That’s the team that needs to be present or checking in regularly with ground zero. Do a daily debrief — in person, if possible.
- Name the list of audiences that you need to communicate with and when.
- Document key occurrences. Keep a record. At first, you will need to add entries frequently. Eventually, you can document less often. When information is flying fast, it’s impossible to remember it all.
- Communicate ONLY facts, not speculation or rumor.
- In your crisis communications plan, layout a checklist of things you should do at various stages:
- Hour 1/2/3
- Day 1/2/3
- Week 1/2/3
- Be transparent. If you can’t tell the truth, don’t say anything.
- Ask your staff not to post on social media. Appoint one key person to respond as needed.
- Pull in key advisors to provide outside perspective and care.
- When the dust settles, do a full debrief with your team and key constituents. What did you do well? What did you miss? How can you update your crisis communications plan, so you are even better prepared next time?
Each time I support a camp in crisis, I am reminded of how fast things move – information gathering, the rumor mill, emotions, etc. In addition to managing the official response from camp, dealing with a crisis can be a huge emotional burden for those in it. A Crisis Communications plan can alleviate some of that burden by reassuring you that you are doing the right things.
Casey Fuerst, owner