There was no possible way that anyone could have catalogued “all the contingencies” on or before September 11, 2001. It was never part of American human nature to spend one’s life endlessly ticking off the “what ifs.” But then it happened — buildings were demolished, people were killed, and lives were changed forever. And now, here we are.
Can we even begin to start cataloguing all the contingencies? Can we, entrusted with annual precious cargoes of children, hope to excel in figuring out exactly how to care for them under any possible circumstances, in a new world with the potential for all sorts of unfathomable — and thus unpredictable — evils?
Bruce Muchnick and I had the opportunity to address the the topic “Camp After September 11 — ????: Embarking on a Search for Answers” during the Keystone Regional Sectional Conference on November 12. As we had predicted, camp professionals — like everyone else — do not even know where to begin to even formulate the questions.
Specifically relating to communications, perhaps it is appropriate to look toward the Public Relations Society of America, which held its annual conference in the fall. It was there that attendees agreed, “Nothing is routine and nothing is standard. Everything has to be thought out on a daily basis. Reality is changing day by day, and not in a linear way.” Translation: we will do some things right, we will make some mistakes — but, nothing ventured, nothing gained. All admit that we are proceeding this year without a “road map” based on previous experience.
Communications, and specifically marketing communications, must be moved forward from the back burner as we move toward the 2002 season. For many, communications with camp families and efforts aimed at prospects are handled on autopilot — update what we did last year and continue to distribute our previously prepared materials. This year, however, we need to take a fresh look at previously unassailable tactics and tools.
Sensitize Your Marketing Communications
As a starting point, we need to re-look at the photos and video clips we are distributing. Are there any images that suddenly appear to be scarier than before? As an example, a counselor painted with makeup to appear ghoulish — perhaps as part of Carnival — may no longer be entirely appropriate. While it may not be possible to perform instant editing of such images, you should acknowledge your own understanding that things may have changed. A major luxury department store recently sent its holiday catalog, filled with photos of opulent jewelry and full-length fur coats and more. They inserted a small, smartly designed card, which stated that everyone in their company is deeply saddened by the tragedy of September 11. They inform the readers that the catalog was printed before September 11 and that this and other mailings may contain material and tone that are inconsistent with the gravity of the recent events. Simple, elegant, and wise.
While it may not be possible or necessary to suddenly customize the marketing package, there is one adjustment that many camps should immediately make. As the boundaries of “political correctness” change, we must understand that even nomenclature is being scrutinized differently. Camps, which hold a major activity where children are divided into two teams and then compete in a variety of sports, arts, and spirit-filled activities, should no longer find it appropriate to call this Color War. For the first time in our generation, children have a heightened sensitivity toward our nation’s active involvement in war. For the first time in the history of our country, war was initiated on our own soil. War is now something we do, not just something we hear about. We do it because someone has done something terribly wrong to us. That “something wrong” resulted in pain, death, and suffering. For some of the children whom we serve, it happened to family and friends. For all these reasons, it is no longer important or right for us to call a camp activity “war.” With the stroke of a pen, you can re-name it Color Contest, Color Challenge, Color Olympics, or another very creative name.
Some would say that the institution of camp is founded on our loyal maintenance of traditions, and that the name Color War is one of their camp’s oldest and most cherished traditions. However, when we allow our traditions to send out negative signals about our lack of sensitivity to children, then our traditions become stumbling blocks. We can use the act of renaming Color War — and the positive communication of that decision — to demonstrate the care and concern for which we want to be recognized.
Reassure Your Camp Families
In your communications with families leading toward the upcoming season, reassure them that you are making adjustments to your camp’s safety and security plans, but also remind them that — unlike other types of institutions — camp has always made safety and security high priorities. Thus, for us, this is not like embarking on disciplines that have never previously been given much thought. When parents call with requests and suggestions, listen carefully, but also be willing to respond realistically. Do not be afraid to maintain your status as someone professionally skilled in the areas of child safety and security by saying, “Thank you for your concern, but that is not something that we are going to do.”
Opportunity Versus Opportunism
As far as new marketing messages are concerned, the Public Relations Society of America has said, “The worst possible thing to do is to do something inappropriate, trying to leverage a tragedy.” Immediately after September 11, many advertisers adopted some kind of position which began “now, more than ever . . .” While it is tempting to claim that children need camp more than ever, we must take care not to appear opportunistic. Advertisers found that consumers need no reminder of the differences in our lives post September 11.
For camp, it would be inappropriate to claim that being at camp is the safe alternative to being back in the suburbs of a major metropolitan market. While we would like to think that terrorism would be highly unlikely to find its way to some of our remote locations, pervasive threats such as anthrax have proven that assumptions of safe havens are unreliable.
Our valuable perspective on “safe haven” however, is our safe emotional haven for children. To that end, the deeper values of the summer camp experience were never more important to your own camp story than they are now. The “Camp Gives Kids a World of Good” platform is a superb point of departure as you explain the benefits of experiences at your camp that go way beyond friendships and physical skills.
While we have a new level of opportunity to match our values to values suddenly understood as more important than ever before — community, self-respect, and acceptance, among many others — we must take care to recognize the difference between opportunity and opportunism in our marketing efforts.
Steve Cony is a marketing consultant who assists children's camps with the development of strategic plans and the execution of marketing materials. Camp directors may contact him at 914-271-8482.
Originally published in the 2002 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.