Growing up, my sister’s catch phrase could have been, “Nobody ever tells me anything!” because she said it so often. More and more, this sentiment is being shared at summer camp, too. Our camp staff feels this same isolation when it comes to the administration communicating information with them. Sometimes staffers feel uncomfortable or are unable to share what they are thinking and feeling with their directors. Furthermore, administrative staff sometimes find themselves frustrated when frontline staff seem to misunderstand or ignore instructions.
Communication Challenges at Camp
Communication at camp faces some of the same challenges that make communication hard anywhere — including fatigue, lack of time, frustration, and misaligned schedules. But in the microcosm of camp, there are additional challenges. It is hard to address an issue with a staff member when there are children everywhere, especially children who need to be supervised at all times. Then there is the difference in age and maturity of those with whom you may be trying to communicate. What about the fact that things said at camp may result in offending a coworker, somebody losing a job, or staff members losing friendships? Sometimes there are personnel issues that, despite everybody wanting to talk about them, we simply cannot. In a world where we have so many tools with which to communicate and connect, why is communication the skill that we are constantly seeking in our staff as well as struggling to teach to our campers?
There is no doubt that the way humans communicate is changing in the digital age, but there are constants as well. If you are tired, you rub your eyes. If you are hungry, you get cranky. If somebody says something funny, you laugh. There are constants at camp, too. Staff value face time with the administrators. It is communicated to the staff that they are being heard and valued when time is set aside from a busy schedule to talk with them in small groups or one on one. Do staff have realistic avenues for speaking their mind and voicing their concerns and frustrations? As administrators, we tend to say, “I am always available to talk to you”; but is the door really always open? Are you always really listening to what you are being told?
Effective Communication Strategies
The ultimate challenge of communication is disseminating the necessary information to all parties in the most efficient and effective way possible. How does that happen at camp? Just like any business may have a marketing plan or a business plan, consider creating a communication plan that can be shared with new employees during orientation. Each camp has to find solutions that work for them, but here are some suggestions to consider:
- Communication Director. Appoint one person whose job it is to be in charge of disseminating information. This can be the duty of an administrator or a staff member who is in charge of not only delivering information in person to staff but also to social media, the Web site, and parents.
- Staff Newsletter. Be it daily, weekly, or per session, publish a staff newsletter that hits the highlights of the things your staff need to know. This can also include kudos from other staff, parents, or campers; a calendar of upcoming staff events; a spotlight on outstanding staff actions; updates on current events; weather forecasts; comic strips; and other camp news. Distribution can occur in print via the camp mail or digitally (for example, posting to a staff Facebook page).
- Meeting Training. Since working at camp is a common first job, we have to remember that our employees simply might not know how to attend meetings and that our administrative staff might not know how to run meetings. Take time to explain expectations and brainstorm how to make meetings as effective as possible.
- Daily Check-In. Establish a framework where every staff member has somebody that is checking in with them each day. Questions to ask at these quick daily check-ins are: “How is your day going? Is there anything you need? Is there anything I can do to support you?” This feedback framework should allow for these questions to be asked up and down the organizational chain of command.
- Forums for Feedback. Whether you create a formal personnel evaluation, a written session evaluation, or a “drop by and talk” system, provide as many opportunities as possible for staff to share constructive criticism on how camp is running and how the administration is doing. Be wary of offering these at times when staff might be too tired to care (for example, in the last-day-of-session paperwork or during time off) and are more likely to fill out evaluations hastily and without much thought.
- Cue Word. Establish a cue word as a staff that alerts anyone to the feeling of, “I really need to talk to you now. I need you to listen to this.” If somebody says that word to you, you must stop what you are doing and offer assistance. Likewise, you have to honor that cue word — false uses of it are like pulling a fire alarm when there is no fire.
- Learn to Say “Not Now.” Sometimes you are simply too busy or wrapped up in something to stop what you are doing to assist. Establish as a staff that this is okay, but that if someone uses the cue word, you must at least help him or her find another person who can assist at that time. Another great phrase to practice saying is: “I want to hear what you have to say. I cannot discuss this with you right now, but how about at 3:00 p.m.? Will that work for you, or would you like for me to help you find someone to talk to before then?”
- Conflict Resolution Training. Include a session during staff training about how to address conflict that may arise between campers, co-counselors, administration, or parents so staff feel empowered to take on challenging situations.
- Sensitive Issues. Decide as an administration what details can be communicated to the staff and what details must be kept confidential. Nothing gets a summer staff talking like someone being asked to leave or someone being officially reprimanded for their actions. Approach these situations with care and respect. Write a statement (like a press release) that will explain what you can to the staff about the circumstances. Regardless of the situation, your staff will appreciate honesty. Try to frame your statement in a way that you are telling the truth — even if the truth is that you’re simply not authorized to tell anything more about the issue.
- Communication as a Priority. While calling parents, organizing schedules, updating budgets, and handling discipline issues are all top priorities, as an administrator, communication with staff has to be at the top of the list. Setting aside time each day to ensure that you are having a conversation with staff (however serious or fun the topic may be) will keep you in the loop of what is going on at camp and show staff that you genuinely care about the work they are doing.
At camp, it’s hard to know the best time to schedule meetings. There is no good time to pull staff away from campers, but here are a few suggestions:
Just after dinner — if cabins have multiple staff assigned to them — might be a viable time to meet a counselor from each cabin while the other cabin counselors take the campers back to get ready for evening program.
Consider scheduling a meeting activity on certain days. Instead of assigning staff to teach an activity during a particular activity block, assign them to attend a staff meeting at that time. This requires that an administrator run the same meeting several times in a row, but it can be the least disruptive to a staff member’s daily schedule. If the plan includes the counselors getting a full rest hour, they will usually cooperate.
Notice when and where your staff naturally congregates. Perhaps you can take the meeting to them in their unit or program area so they can still be within earshot of the campers if they are needed. The coffee pot is always a popular place in the morning. Strategically place an administrator there each morning with the daily announcements or the staff newsletter, and the counselors can digest the information as they wait for the coffee to brew. The more convenient you make it for staff, the more likely they are to listen to what you have to say.
During meetings, remember that everybody’s time is valuable. Communicate efficiently by being intentional with wording and actions.
Have an agenda prepared, make it visible to the staff, and stick to it. Provide a forum for staff to bring up issues that need to be addressed at future meetings (on paper, marker board, posting on a staff Facebook page, etc.).
Always start meetings on time, even if it means some people miss the first few minutes. If meetings are scheduled after time off and you notice staff aren’t arriving on time, have a drawing five minutes before the meeting for those who are present to win a freebie from the camp store or a $5 – $10 gift card as a reward.
Rewards at meetings can be in the form of praise, too. Plan to give kudos or a shout out to a specific staff member at every meeting, whether it’s for something you saw or something that was reported to you by staff, campers, or parents. This will not only encourage the staff to be at their best during work to receive that shout out, but it will also keep them tuned in during the meeting to hear about their accomplishments.
Sometimes simply ending a meeting becomes the challenge. Consider ending your meeting with your kudos or shout out. I recommend using Steve Maguire’s “no question policy” at the end of meetings to provide effective closure. Avoid asking the whole group (most of whom are ready to get back to their regularly scheduled programing), “Does anybody have any questions?” Typically, this results in that one person asking the longest, most drawn out question when everybody else is ready to head out the door. Instead, try saying: “If you have questions about what we talked about, I will be available right here afterwards to answer those for you. Thanks for coming!” This not only dismisses everybody who is ready to leave, but it also provides yet another regular opportunity for staff to have one-on-one communication with directors.
Directors cannot rely simply on telling the staff how they are expected to communicate with one another — this behavior must be modeled as well. Administrators must be conscientious of the words they are using when communicating with parents and other staff, as the staff members will often listen specifically for the director’s answer when trying to figure out the best way to face similar challenges. Even if staff are communicating an outlandish request or complaint, a director can gain an infinite amount of respect by simply taking the time to sit down, listen, and consult with the offended party about potential solutions. Understand, too, that just as some campers simply do not have the vocabulary or maturity to adequately communicate challenges they are facing, staff members may not have the tools or life experience necessary to communicate effectively about a given situation. Coaching them on how to do so appropriately is yet another lifelong skill they can learn at camp.
By making communication among the staff a priority and modeling good communication skills, directors will find they are better equipped to serve the needs of campers and staff and run camp as effectively as possible.
Communicating with Staff
“Engagement Strategies for Millennial Staff — What REALLY Works!” by Jeffrey Leiken, MA, recorded webinar. www.ACAcamps.org/einstitute/webinars/engagement-strategies-millennial-staff 
The Art and Skill of Effective Communication with Campers, Parents, and Staff, by
“They’ve Done Their Jobs . . . Now What Will You Tell Them? Providing Post-Season Feedback That Really Feeds Your Staff,” by Christopher Thurber, PhD, ABPP, Camping Magazine, May/June 2010. www.ACAcamps.org/campmag/1009/theyve-done-their-jobs-now-what-will-you-tell-them 
Stephanie L. Compton is the program director at Green River Preserve in Cedar Mountain, North Carolina. On March 26, she will be hosting the ACA e-Institute webinar “10 Things Your Multi-Year Return Staff Aren’t Telling You.” To contact Stephanie, visit her Web site at http://sites.google.com/site/natureisthebestteacher .
Originally published in the 2013 March/April Camping Magazine.