Running a Camp Can Drive Anyone Batty! Public Relations Issues . . . Are You Prepared?

by Kat Shreve, Denise Viau, and Gwynn Powell, Ph.D.

How many of us have gotten a phone call midsummer that starts like this . . . "Hi . . . I just wanted to call and let you know that my daughter had a wonderful time at camp BUT . . . ."

As camp professionals we have a sixth sense that there is going to be a "BUT" . . . when Denise Viau, camping services manager, Girl Scout Council of the Nation's Capital, received this call last summer, she began to internally finish the sentence with a few quick thoughts—camper didn't get activities she wanted, the food was bad, or she did not make a friend.

Neither her twenty-plus years at camp nor her conditioned responses were in line with how this particular sentence ended that day. "But . . . we have a major problem. My daughter said there was a bat in her sleeping shelter at your camp. I have already contacted the Health Department. All the girls who were in her shelter will have to have the Post Exposure Prophylactics (PEP) shots/series."

GULP . . . However, with Viau's wisdom from being at the helm all those years, she sprung into action as she responded with a rapid series of external questions, and was able to maintain silence on the internal questions until she could pull a response team together:

  • Is your daughter okay . . . how can I help you with what she needs? How can I gather resources to support this situation?
  • Was your daughter bitten by a bat? Why didn't camp staff tell me about this?
  • Who did you speak with at the Health Department? How can I get our PR Specialist in touch with them?

Now before you let yourself off the hook saying, "we don't have a bat problem," the take-away message here is: Do you have a mental checklist, based on a well-developed plan to calmly listen to a situation, recognize a potential crisis, and develop a proactive response?

As the story unfolds, there are several strands to follow:

  • How do we stay current on the latest health information? When was the last time you asked your medical liaison to be an active part of your preseason planning?
  • What is our crisis response plan? When was the last time we tested its effectiveness?
  • What do we have in place for media and parent communication? What training have I had to help us remember we are always "on the record"?

The American Camp Association (ACA) has tools to support your development of a plan or to compare your existing plan and improve it. Each year, ACA is able to support camps 24/7/365 via the ACA Hotline (800-573-9019). This service not only benefits the camp calling for support, but the aggregate information that comes in during the year also gives the Association a global view of issues that surface around the country. Those topics are reviewed and resources are developed. In addition, extensive work has been done to provide media training and communication tools for ACA members based on expertise from the public relations and camp fields (see the Crisis Planning Resources).

The following account of what Viau and her camp experienced reminds us of important questions and lessons from which all camp professionals can learn:

When Viau called the County Health Department (just minutes after hanging up with the concerned parent and informing her supervisor and ACA), a large group of health department staff had been convened in the director's office to discuss this issue. Viau was immediately placed on speaker phone with the group. What happened next is important from several angles: what the Health Department did, what the camp did, and how the media and parents responded.

  • Do you have a list of where each camper sleeps? The Health Department wanted the names of all the campers in that housing area where the bat was sighted, and they needed to be informed of other bat sightings at the camp. They also wanted the bat from that shelter caught so it could be tested.
  • Do you have a crisis plan? The camp mobilized its resources to convene a crisis team.
  • Do you know where all crisis contact information is so you can have a designated person quickly make contact? The camp notified the council attorney, other camps in their council, neighboring councils, their national headquarters, the ACA Hotline, and the local ACA office.
  • If your campers sleep in areas without screens do you have a procedure? The crisis team reviewed the camp's procedures for bat sightings.

The Health Department came to camp to take pictures and interview the staff, and sent a letter to all the campers who attended camp so far that season (950 girls). They surveyed the campers to see if anyone had been bitten by a bat (no camper had), if they had touched a bat or woken up to find a bat in their sleeping area. The surveys were returned to the health department, and they decided to whom PEP shots/series would be recommended. The survey results supported the camps assertion that campers used mosquito netting. The camp drafted a letter to go with the Health Department letter and offered to send both letters, but the offer was declined. The camp was advised to contact the rapid response unit from Game and Wildlife and install screens immediately; the camp would be contacted after the conference call with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. The camp requested to be part of the call, the request was denied.

  • Do you have an established relationship with legal council and an insurance representative? The council attorney reviewed the draft letter from the Health Department and offered recommended changes. The changes were not accepted, and the letters were distributed separately—one letter from the health department and one letter from the camp.
  • Do you have a way to mobilize parent communication quickly. The camp drafted a letter to go to their board of directors and key volunteers so that others would be informed.
  • Do you know how to talk to a reporter? Do you remember that you are always "on the record"? The camp staff asked the following questions to help them prepare for any media attention: How would parents react? When would the letters reach parents? How would the media report the story?
  • Do you have press release templates ready for a variety of situations? Press releases were developed by the Council, ACA national headquarters, and the Health Department. The letters went home and the press saw a story. It was in the Washington Post, CNN, and the AP wires. Parents who had been calm were now panicked.
  • Do you have a way to handle call volume on short notice? The council knew the importance of answering every call, so they set up phone banks so that no call would go to voice mail.
  • Do you have a media spokesperson? Are staff trained to not speak with the media? Do you have a way to harness trained, extra people when needed on site at short notice? Extra staff were deployed to the camp to keep media out and manage questions.

In this case, thanks to good planning, quick thinking, honest responses, and a collaborative spirit, camp registration is rolling in for the upcoming season, parents have renewed confidence that the camp can handle a range of situations, the housing units have new screening, and the council is proud of its membership for rising to the occasion and providing support.

 

Kat Shreve is the director of education for the American Camp Association.

Originally published in the 2007 Spring issue of The CampLine.

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