Countdown: Control or Catastrophe

by Marla Coleman


Ten Steps in Twenty-Four Hours to Take Control of a Crisis

  1. Communications lockdown (one hour)
  2. Brainstorm with colleagues, ACA Hotline (two hours)
  3. Identify one spokesperson (one hour)
  4. Formulate key messages (three hours)
  5. Bring staff into the loop (one hour)
  6. Share/control message with campers (two hours)
  7. Contact parents (two hours)
  8. Be proactive with media, community, etc. (two hours)
  9. Partner with experts (counseling, legislators, emergency/medical authorities . . .) (two hours)
  10. Put lessons learned into action immediately (ongoing)


Wikipedia defines a crisis as a "testing time" or "emergency event." Camp directors say such an occurrence is the defining moment in how they measure the success of their camp season.

Confessions of a camp director: we lay awake at night, fearing such potential situations—knowing intuitively that they lurk ominously each day and night of the camp season. It is our mantra— nothing is more important than the safety of our campers. It is in our hearts, our words, our actions. If only it were in our power to avert disasters by warding off risks to life, health, property, or the environment.

We can't always avert disaster, but we can have a plan. This one enables you to sleep for eight hours rather than toss and turn—and emerge with messages and outcomes that exude control, calm, and competence.

The fallout from a crisis, regardless of where it lays on the continuum, can be mitigated—with a thoughtful and well-planned communications strategy that underscores people's confidence in us, whether those people are our camp families, the media, or government services. Impending tragedies and serious danger can evolve into proactive decisions and positive results.

Personal reflection by anyone who has been in the camp field for a while will most likely validate this fact: communication has always been the backbone of camp directors working with parents; in today's society, it is the touchstone.

While the timeline is flexible, the ten steps are unbending. To illustrate their effectiveness, we use an experience, though it sounds surreal, that was very real indeed during the summer of 2005 in an overnight camp in the Catskill Mountains of New York (ours!). This incident actually underscores the certainty that something unexpected and not on your radar is bound to come to pass during one season or another.

From Quarantine to Confidence in Ten Steps: A Case Study

A mumps outbreak during the spring in the university population in the UK innocently and swiftly threatened to wreak havoc one summer in upstate New York. While American children are inoculated against this all-but-eradicated illness, many European countries do not mandate the vaccine. Still, it was quickly learned that vaccination has a 5 percent failure rate, making all campers vulnerable to the disease, especially in a closed environment.

The local and state health departments swarmed in, placing a quarantine on the entire camp population – campers and staff, deliveries, family tours, trips, and more. Panic and negative publicity loomed, as the local community worried, parents fretted, and the media threatened to build hysteria far and wide.

1. Communications Lockdown
Batten the hatches, and assemble a crisis team. The moment you are confronted with a crisis—or what might become a crisis—get the word out definitively: NO ONE TALKS TO ANYONE! You need time to absorb the situation, brainstorm the solutions, and assess the implications. Your staff must understand that they cannot talk, not even "off the record," because there is no such thing. A well-intentioned comment can easily be taken out of context. If you don't want to hear it said, don't say it in the first place! It is impossible to retrieve a misstatement.

Take command of the situation with a calm and assuring tone and demeanor:

  • Tell officials you are developing protocols and will contact them for their approval as soon as they are in place.
  • Assemble a crisis team.
  • Make sure those answering phones take messages only and do not editorialize or comment.
  • Do not take media calls, but promise to call them back within a reasonable period of time (have someone ask them their deadline); do not say, "no comment," but rather, "I will call you back by . . . ."
  • Let the camp community know you will be giving them all the information just as soon as you have all the facts.
  • Bring your leadership team together and explain the importance of the communications lockdown, while assuring them you will keep them in the loop; use them as a sounding board and assure them of their value.
  • If, and only if, the word is already out to parents, post a reassuring message on your Web site and tell them where and when to look for more information. Remind them that "nothing is more important than the safety of the campers"—and that their children are safe.
  • Comply with mandates, but do not be afraid to question, redirect, and, when necessary, plead for alternate process!

2. Brainstorm With Colleagues, Call the ACA Crisis Hotline, and Your Attorney
Use resources, and confer with experts in the field. Someone has gone through what you are faced with or some iteration of it, and there are lessons already learned to help inform your decisions. Your colleagues and professional organization understand implications and ramifications, and they can help enlighten your thinking in a clear, unemotional manner. The American Camp Association (ACA) Crisis Hotline is a priceless source of valuable insights and information. You are not in this alone, and others in the field will be able to objectify the problem and troubleshoot outcomes. You might need/want legal advice.

Bring colleagues into the circle and explore options, ideas, others' experiences, and professional resources:

  • Discuss topics such as partnering with parents, dealing with health department officials, and eliciting ideas and coping strategies. Ask about others' experiences with medical crises, including what worked and what didn't work; how would the other director have changed what he did if faced with the same situation again?
  • Play out scenarios with various outcomes with those you trust and who can envision being in your shoes.
  • Request ACA's help in formulating key messages. (This is also an essential step in case ACA is contacted by the media or a government agency).
  • In some instances, it is advisable to call your attorney for legal advice.
  • Listen, listen, listen to colleagues who are able to detach from the emotional turmoil you may be experiencing and who will circle the wagons for you!

3. Identify One Spokesperson
Decide who your spokesperson will be and make sure to be clear to all on your team that no one else will speak on the subject— whether to parents, staff, campers, media, or government officials. This person must have the credibility of all the populations listed above as well as the ability to communicate key messages and not be drawn off message. Everyone should know unequivocally to direct all questions on the subject to the spokesperson.

The spokesperson is the clearinghouse for any action or comment related to the crisis:

  • Hold meetings to explain the importance of only one person speaking, especially to the media and government officials.
  • Make certain everyone (internally and externally) knows the name of the spokesperson.
  • The spokesperson must convey confidence and competence and hold to these basic tenets.
    • Never say "no comment"; do not repeat negative words.
    • Admit what you don't know ("I don't know . . . what I can tell you is . . . . ").
    • Bridge from an undesirable question to a key message/ solution—return to your primary objective.
    • Flag what is important, which helps clarify what you want to communicate (if they don't ask it, you say it anyway!); try to steer the discussion.
    • Repeat key messages and don't stray from them.
    • Buy time ("I will get back to you in an hour; I have to . . . .").
    • You don't have to answer hostile questions.
    • Never go "off the record."

4. Formulate Key Messages
This is the root of your work in managing a crisis. Use your professional network, both informally and formally, to help you establish your talking points in a way that clearly conveys the key messages. Once the crisis is contained, you may choose to have receptionists or others answer basic questions from parents, so you'll need a set of related talking points for these people as well. These messages will be geared more to the concerns of parents, while the external key messages need to frame the crisis as a condition of society rather than a mistake of the camp.

Key messages, regardless of the situation, should reflect four stages: preparedness, response, recovery, and lessons learned. You must communicate that there was a plan in place, that you moved swiftly to execute that plan and then contain the emergency, and that you will take steps to ensure that no reoccurrence is possible. Lastly, talk about how this incident can help educate the greater public.

Alleviate overreaction by demonstrating response, recovery, and redirection:

  • Write and rewrite the messages until each one resounds with heartfelt meaning and undisputed authority.
  • Test them out on others to see if they have any flaws in reasoning or potential traps in extrapolating information.
  • Practice, practice, practice!
  • When you are confident, return reporters' calls with the key messages in front of you; if you are doing broadcast interviews, make certain you have committed the talking points to memory.
  • Be proactive, not defensive. Accept responsibility, explain systems, and emphasize redoubled efforts for the future. Wherever possible, tie the situation to societal issues.

5. Bring Staff Into the Loop
As soon as you have updated the key staff, bring the entire staff on board with full disclosure. Share the key messages, reinforce that their safety, as well as their campers, is the most important consideration, and let them know what to expect in the short and long terms as a result of the situation. Find the earliest opportunity to bring everyone together, so that they all hear the same information at the same time; you may need to have leadership staff cover for them.

Focus on how staff are affected or not and on the lessons learned for the sake of the camp community:

  • Make staff feel a part of the solution.
  • Let them know you will keep them informed—and do.
  • Identify outlets to communicate clearly and efficiently with staff.
  • Give staff the tools they need to comfort and reassure their campers.
  • Share key messages with staff and make sure they know the words are from your heart.

6. Share/Control the Message With Campers
Don't forget to let the campers know what is going on! They, too, need to hear the key messages that pertain to them. Tell them also that their parents know, so they don't worry; and above all, make sure they are convinced they are safe. You will need to give them details as to how you are protecting them—spell it out for them. Campers also like to know that they are accountable for themselves, so suggest self-help concepts for them to feel more in control of outcomes.

Gather your campers in comfortable, small groups, supported by division leaders, head counselors, camp moms . . . whoever can add comfort and backing:

  • Explain what is happening, why it happened, and what is likely to happen next.
  • Speak from the heart, describing details of why campers can and should feel safe.
  • Let them know how they can help the situation, both personally and for the camp community.
  • Give them language to communicate to their parents that they are okay.
  • Give them opportunities, if you deem appropriate, for them to actually speak with their parents.
  • Call in child development experts, where needed, to talk with campers— and with staff.

7. Contact Parents
By now, you are comfortable with your key messages. They need to be threaded into a letter that emanates confidence and control. Depending on urgency of timing (has the word gotten out?), this letter can be mailed or e-mailed. You can expect that while most parents will be satisfied with your communication, there are likely to be a handful that will insist on more – either a follow-up phone call to you or a call from their child. Be prepared to deliver!

Write a heartfelt message to parents, making sure to partner with them:

  • Let them know their child is safe.
  • Explain the problem.
  • Explain the plan.
  • Explain the compliance, past and present, with regulations and common sense. Explain how vigilance in this area will be strengthened.
  • Make yourself available for further questions.
  • Let them know when they can expect to hear from you again.
  • If there is a password-protected area of your Web site, consider a posting there for updates and reference it in your letter.

8. Be Proactive With Media, Community, Etc.
Being forthcoming can add real value in a crisis. Once you are at ease that you are in control of both the situation and the message, think about inviting the media and members of the community to visit. Or you might drop in at the local post office or deli, where neighbors congregate and might be tempted to embellish a story. Think about a follow-up media release, highlighting improved programs or procedures. Write thank-you notes to local volunteer services. Send updated safety plans to health department officials. Contact local legislators and offer to give them a tour of camp. Shoot video to send to local TV stations, and find positive PR stories to share.

Find opportunities to manage the media as well as the message:

  • Partner with people who are simply doing their job, and thank them for their part in keeping your camp community safe.
  • Assure the local community that your camp is a cooperating member of that community.

9. Partner With Experts
Reach out to every resource that your particular emergency influences: medical authorities, local law enforcement, volunteer response teams . . . . and also consult with therapists and counselors in youth development who can talk with campers, staff, and parents. Model the team effort and community spirit that are the underpinning of the camp experience, and utilize a negative experience to teach a life lesson—and let the world know what you are doing!

Implement protocols immediately to manage or control the situation. Use your crisis team to help formulate these, and then present them to the regulating agency that is asking for specific compliance.

Because you have managed a crisis, others will be better prepared to cope with a similar experience. In order for that to happen, you must get the word out—and also let the word in. GET HELP! Sometimes, it is just a smart tactic to illustrate your deference; other times, it is imperative to help the larger community bounce back from adversity.

10. Put Lessons Learned Into Action
This is where camp directors shine! We do it all the time. We learn from our own experiences, we share them with others in our field, and we continually are improving the communities we create.

Find the positive spin, the moral imperative, and the value added. Capitalize upon the shared experience by reminding every member of the community that everyone was in it together, pulled together, and emerged whole. Remind them of the irreplaceable life skill of resilience that was practiced by everyone right here where we live together for weeks or months each year.

And believe it yourself. Where else can a difficult occurrence progress into a life lesson for so many? When you frame it like this, it might even be worth a sleepless night every so often!

The events of summer 2005 taught us to wash our hands regularly and to cover our mouths when we cough! It taught us that we could bounce back in the face of adversity, whether that meant missing an inter-camp game, an anticipated trip, or a night off for staff. We learned that we could endure a hardship together because we were a part of a larger community that pulled together. And we found out that we could find the humor in a difficult situation—become stronger, more competent, and more caring. After all, nothing is more important than the safety of our campers. It is in our hearts, our words, and our actions.

Sample Key Messages for a Health Crisis at Camp

  • Nothing is more important to an ACA-Accredited® camp than the health, safety, and well-being of all campers.
  • Camp Echo demonstrated its commitment to the health and safety of its campers by employing excellent health policies and procedures and taking proactive steps when camp staff identified a health concern.
  • Nearly 25,000 international counselors work in ACA-accredited camps each summer.
  • This experience provides important lessons in understanding and cooperation in a world often full of strife.
  • Unfortunately, a global health issue surfaced this summer over required immunizations; this is not a Camp Echo problem, but a societal issue.
  • One hundred percent of campers at Camp Echo had already been immunized before coming to camp, and the camp had documentation of immunization for each camper.
  • Camps and other "closed" communities should be equally proactive in identifying symptoms; other cases have been identified in other states in the U.S.
  • Our excellent health records and aggressive action—which included partnering with parents, counselors, doctors, and governmental agencies—allowed us to resolve the health issue quickly and completely.
  • As a global society, we must work together to advocate for full immunization for internationals visiting our country.
Sample Excerpts From Letter to Parents
"We have reviewed camp medical records and confirmed that prior to attending camp, 100 percent of our campers had received the MMR vaccination . . . . Our talented health center staff have worked with the NYS DOH to ensure that we are employing best practices . . . . Camp continues normally . . . . We are keeping sick campers and counselors separated . . . . We have not had any new cases in five days . . . . If your child was affected, you already have been notified . . . . As always, camper safety and comfort are our top priorities . . . . Feel free to contact us . . . . For more information on mumps, please visit the Mayo Clinic Web site at . . . . "

Marla Coleman is a past national president of and a spokesperson for the American Camp Association. She is an owner of Coleman Family Camps, which includes Coleman Country Day Camp, Coleman Events, and Coleman Cross Country, all based in Merrick, New York. She also is the former director of Camp Echo, a resident camp in Burlingham, New York.

Originally published in the 2008 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.