Benjamin Franklin famously said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”
As camp professionals, we get it. Planning is such an integral part of your camp’s operations, it’s nearly impossible to imagine life without it. From registrations to hiring, cabin assignments, schedules, activities, food, training, and more, planning is practically second nature.
But what about public relations (PR)? When facing a crisis, an emergency, or another major happening at your camp, do you have a plan in place for communicating with the media? With campers and their families? With the public? If just the thought of PR makes you nervous, don’t panic. Here you’ll find a general guide for public relations, including practical steps you can take to make sure your camp is always “PRepared” (pun intended).
First Things First: What Is Public Relations?
According to the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics” (2022). In other words, PR is your communications strategy to create positive impressions, generate interest, increase engagement, and protect and support your camp’s reputation.
While the concept of PR is simple, it represents a broad, complex umbrella of techniques to communicate your camp’s news and information. Without a clear understanding of what this means and how it applies to your camp, developing a PR strategy can easily become overwhelming.
Out of the lengthy list of PR responsibilities, Comit PR & Marketing Services identifies seven of the most common focal points (Luke, 2019):
- Strategic Communications
- Media Relations
- Community Relations
- Internal Communications
- Crisis Communications
- Public Affairs
- Online and Social Media Communications
Let’s break down each of these areas, look at how they function within the camp industry, and consider ways to think about them within the context of your own camp.
Haseeb Tariq, a marketing director, defines strategic communications as a plan built around “who you are talking to, why you are talking to them, how and when you will talk to them, what form of communication the content should take, and what channels you should use to share it” (Arkansas State University, 2022).
Odds are, you and your staff follow a calendar of communications — registration emails to families, recruitment letters to staff, social media posts of camp happenings, etc. — to keep your campers, families, staff, and alumni engaged and informed throughout the year. This is your strategic communications plan. The key, then, is consistency: making sure your staff is on the same page around what, when, and how you communicate, along with having a consistent style, theme, and messages. The overarching style will vary from camp to camp and often reflects a camp’s look, feel, or unique qualities that keep people coming back year after year.
Tips to creating a strategic communications plan:
- Take a birds-eye approach. Look broadly at the ways you communicate throughout the year. Do you have a clear and easy-to-follow schedule for your camp’s communications? Could your calendar accommodate more communications? Could it use fewer communications? Thinking critically about what you send and when you send it can ensure the best information is being shared without saturating your audience’s already full inboxes and social media feeds.
- What’s your look? Consider your camp’s location, website, and logo. Do your communications have a similar style? Maintaining consistency in your camp’s visuals can help with brand recognition. As a result, information you share gains trust, and your audience may be more likely to pay attention.
- Consider your messaging. If your emails say one thing but your social media posts say another, you might be sending mixed messages to your campers and staff. Make sure that, in all communications, you share information that supports and reflects your camp’s mission, vision, and experience. Doing so will help protect your camp’s reputation and encourage positive impressions.
Does the thought of talking to the media make you want to hide under a rock? You’re not alone! Many professionals feel intimidated or nervous about talking with reporters. This largely stems from lack of preparedness, so planning and practicing ahead of time can help you and your staff feel confident when facing the media.
Luckily, putting together a media relations plan is easier than it sounds. Taking time to discuss the who, what, when, where, and why of media relations can help your staff feel ready for any media opportunity.
Tips to create a media relations plan:
- Identify your spokesperson. Not sure who should talk with reporters? Select one key person, usually a camp director, assistant director, or owner, who will take interviews and communicate with the media. Having one spokesperson will help keep messaging consistent, avoid miscommunication, and provide the media with a familiar face.
- Consider what you will say and why you want to share that. Going into an interview without first thinking through talking points can create unnecessary anxiety. Sit down with your team and work through potential questions a reporter might ask. Do they want to know about upcoming trends for the summer? Will they question your camp’s safety protocols? Write out bullet points with concise responses to help your spokesperson be as prepared and consistent as possible with your camp’s messaging.
- When and where will you speak with the media? Just as camp operations vary throughout the year, your policy for talking with reporters might change depending on where you are in the calendar and who is at camp. For example, if it’s the middle of summer, identify one or two places on campus where reporters can conduct interviews or secure film footage. Review your policies regarding camper and staff safety, including photo and video releases, to make sure your media engagement follows suit. If it’s the off-season, you may have more leeway on where reporters can go.
Camps are all about community, so this is an area where you and your staff can really excel! Any time you connect with your camp’s surrounding area, such as local businesses and residents, you engage in community relations. The same is true for blogs, social media posts, mailings, and newsletters that you send to your campers, families, staff, and alumni. Connecting and communicating with your community invites people to share feedback, offer suggestions, and strengthen the bonds that are already in place.
Tips for creating a community relations plan:
- Connect with local organizations. Does your camp utilize local businesses, such as suppliers, grocers, and contractors? Creating partnerships in your area not only supports the local economy and bolsters community relationships, but it also demonstrates to your campers and staff a commitment to helping others and using sustainable resources.
- Map out your communications, both in mail and online. The messages you send out to the world — and their timing — can have a massive impact on your camp’s community. Are your emails, posts, and mailings engaging and informative? Do they support your camp’s mission and values? Are they fostering a sense of community and inviting others? Look critically at what you’re sending and consider the season and time of year to make sure your community is receiving timely, positive, and impactful information.
Outward communications can help increase registrations, raise funds, recruit staff, and keep your camp community engaged and involved. None of this is possible, however, without an effective internal communications plan. How and what you communicate with your staff — both year-round and seasonal — plays a bigger role than you might think. By anticipating your staff members’ needs and asking for their input, you can avoid mistakes and miscommunication. Instead, you will establish a culture in which your staff members feel valued, supported, and, ultimately, successful.
Tips for creating an internal communications plan:
- Consider your staff. What does a typical day look like? What are their roles and responsibilities? Being aware of schedules and duties can help you decide when to book meetings or send out information-filled emails without adding too much to your staff’s already full plates.
- Teamwork makes the dream work! This means including your staff in conversations, brainstorming, and providing feedback on your operations. From working closely with campers to running activities, your staff hold tremendous knowledge about how smoothly your camp is running — or what might need immediate oversight or improvement. Relying on your staff and inviting their participation demonstrates trust and boosts confidence. This helps create a positive work environment and can assist in both staff recruitment and retention.
- Create a framework for consistent messaging. Are your staff members hearing different information from multiple sources? Make sure your staff members are on the same page in any and all areas — from parent communication to cabin management, safety protocols, and more. Though it might feel redundant, repetition can help staff remember and follow your camp’s policies and procedures with greater effectiveness and efficiency.
Like media relations, crisis communications is not everyone’s favorite topic. Regardless, having a crisis communications plan is essential for any business. Crises can be unexpected, nerve-wracking, and hectic. Having a communications plan in place ahead of time can ease some of the stress and help you regain a sense of control.
Tips for creating a crisis communications plan:
- Identify your spokesperson. This will likely be the same as your media relations plan spokesperson. Select one person — be it your camp director, assistant director, or owner — who will speak with the media or other outside sources.
- Create your talking points. In a crisis, time is of the essence, so you might not have as much leisure time to craft lengthy responses. Sit down with your team to create a statement or two around the situation. The more concise the better.
- Inform your staff, campers, and families. Make sure your immediate camp community is aware of the situation. Depending on the audience, you may need to tailor your messaging (i.e. staff will likely need more details than your campers), but this is entirely based on the circumstances.
- Consider connecting with local authorities and attorneys. Again, depending on the crisis, you may need to consult external departments. When dealing with a major crisis, seek advice from your attorneys or other authorities. Bringing in outside assistance can ensure that your camp is following best communications practices during this time.
At first glance, this may sound similar to community relations. They hold similarities, but public affairs has more to do with lobbying and government connections. Rud Pedersen Public Affairs helps further explain: “Similar to public relations, strategic communication is at the heart of public affairs. Public affairs helps ensure businesses have an avenue to build relationships and communicate their point of view to relevant stakeholders, especially when it comes to the development of new policies and regulations” (2022). In the camp industry, this usually includes staying current on government regulations for health, safety, and risk management, and working with government officials to make those determinations.
Tips for creating a public affairs plan:
- Who are your local government officials? Take time to connect with them. Building a relationship with local authorities and officials can help your camp share concerns, express the need for legislative changes, and stay informed on current policies.
- Join ACA’s Government Relations community group. ACA consistently works to ensure government regulations support camps’ health, safety, and risk management efforts. The Government Relations community on ACA Connect brings together volunteers and staff who are working on camp issues, as well as camp directors and members who want to stay informed about government relations news and initiatives for the camp community. (Not a member? Join ACA today by visiting ACAcamps.org/membership.)
Online and Social Media Communications
Everyone is online these days, and social media’s prominent role in communication isn’t going away anytime soon. Is your camp on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, YouTube, and more? Trying to be everywhere at once is a staggering task, and without a plan in place your information and content can become watered down and put you at risk of losing your audience. Take a step back and consider how your social media and online strategy can pay dividends for your camp’s internet presence.
Tips for creating an online and social media communications plan:
- Identify your online and social media team. Are multiple people running your social media accounts? Is it unclear who is in charge of content creation and engagement? Select one or two staff members to oversee your online and social media accounts. This will help streamline your content and create more consistency across platforms.
- What is your strategy? Look back at your camp’s strategic communications plan. What are the primary themes and messages you’d like to convey? What type of audience are you trying to reach? Frame your social media and online content around this information. Staying in line with other forms of communications, such as the language and images on your website, the look and feel of your camp, and being mindful of who you’re trying to reach (staff, campers, families, donors), can help you create inspiring posts and increase overall engagement.
- Enforce policies and procedures. The World Wide Web can also be the wild, wild west. Maintain your camp’s integrity and reputation by putting guidelines in place for posting and internet activity. Be smart. Make sure images are appropriate, protect campers and staff with image releases, and demonstrate safety practices.
- Consider how you’ll interact with online users. Must you contend with trolls or unhappy users? Think through how you’ll communicate — or not — with online bullying. Be proactive rather than reactive to negative online interactions to help you avoid unnecessary crises.
- Make sure all communications are proofread before dispersal — and always by someone other than the writer. No sense in putting the time and thought into a worthwhile communication only to have it flawed with a typo or misspellings.
Working at camp means wearing tons of hats, and public relations is no different. Aside from these seven main areas, PR may involve marketing, advertising, event planning, and more. The seemingly endless list of options can easily feel overwhelming, but this is where having a plan can save the day. Take time to think through each of these areas, or even just the ones that apply to you and your camp. Overall it will save you time, money, and stress. And who wouldn’t benefit from that?
- Public Relations Society of America. (2022). About Public Relations. PRSA. prsa.org/about/all-about-pr
- Luke. (2019, October 31). What are the different types of PR? Comit PR & Marketing Services. comit.ie/latest-news-from-comit/what-are-the-different-types-of-pr.798.html
- Arkansas State University. (2022, February 7). What Is Meant by Strategic Communications?. degree.astate.edu/articles/media-management/what-is-meant-by-strategic-communications.aspx
- Rud Pederson Public Affairs. (2022, March 31). What Is Public Affairs? rudpedersen.com/news/what-is-public-affairs
Lauren McMillin is the American Camp Association’s public relations and communications manager.