Is the answer to any of the following questions yes in relation to your camp?
- Have you purchased the assets of a camp and kept the name?
- Do you lease your camp premises to third parties during off-season?
- Do you lease any portion of your camp premises to third parties while you are also operating your camp?
- Is there another camp with your name or a similar name?
Each of these scenarios creates a potential brand and reputation exposure for you.
Each year we are asked to assist camp owners related to events that occurred either before they owned the camp, when they leased out their camp, or at another camp entirely that shares their name.
Unfortunately, when bad events happen on your camp's premises (e.g., sexual abuse, serious injuries, drowning, hazing), from a social media and traditional media perspective, it doesn't matter who was in control of the facility at the time. Your camp will be named.
As you know, the statute of limitations for sexual molestation has been rolled back or temporarily eliminated in many states. Claims are being brought against camps and their owners for incidents that took place decades ago. You didn't own the camp when the allegations occurred, however you kept the name — a name you believed had brand value. Unfortunately, that name — now your name — will appear digitally and in print connected to the allegations of misconduct. Readers will attribute past actions to today's owners.
Sometimes, if you are lucky, you get a heads up from a reporter before they publish their story. But even if you do, it's difficult to interest the reporter in including the type of details that would help the reader (parents, future parents, regulators, plaintiff attorneys) understand you are not culpable — the type of details that from the reporter's perspective distract from the main point of the story: controversy, not accuracy.
Will these statements help?
- Mr. Reporter, please indicate in your article that when the camper( s) were sexually abused at ABC camp, it had different ownership than the ABC camp of today.
- Mr. Reporter, please indicate that the alleged perpetrator never worked at camp while we owned it.
- Mr. Reporter, please indicate that the counselor arrested for child pornography was working for a different entity that was also operating on our property — one we had no responsibility for.
- Mr. Reporter, please indicate that the alleged sexual assault took place during a party at our camp after we closed for the season and had leased our premises to a third party.
- Mr. Reporter, please indicate that the ABC camp you are writing about shares the same name as our camp, but it is not our camp. Please make that clear.
Unfortunately, no. We have found in a crisis that when you are explaining, you are losing. While you may be successful in getting a reporter to include some of these details, they are typically buried deep in the article; yet your camp name likely remains in the headline.
No amount of explaining in the article will help from a search engine optimization perspective.
When prospective families search your camp's name, depending on the severity of the incident and the media outlets that report on it, they may find articles positioned on their search engine's first page. If the reader even clicks on the article, you must hope they read far enough to understand that the headline — "Counselor Charged with Sexual Abuse at Camp ABC" — did not involve your Camp ABC.
So what can you do to prevent being in a situation like those described? Regrettably, not much after the fact. Naming issues should be considered prior to your purchase of a camp and prior to the time you begin leasing out all or a portion of your premises.
Issues to consider:
- Purchase of Camp/Name Change: Does the brand value of the name outweigh any future association with a negative event? In other words, will you gain more by keeping the name than you will lose by being associated with a negative event that surfaces after you have purchased the camp? Conduct due diligence. Research whether the camp name is associated with prior events that could come back to haunt you. Weigh the pros and cons of a name change.
- Website/Marketing Materials: Think through how you portray the history of your camp. Should you make it clear that although the name is the same, the ownership changed? That depends on what your goals are. Are you thinking about liability in your marketing strategy? Clearly, it is attractive to a potential customer to know a camp has been in business for a hundred years. That same sentence, however, will also be read by the reporter writing a story about negative events, and they may not be able to discern that the ownership changed. Everything has trade-offs. Risk can be assumed, but go in with your eyes wide open.
- Legal Liability: Should you purchase assets only? This is an issue to discuss with your legal counsel to protect you from liability for incidents that predate your ownership. Speak with legal counsel about how to protect yourself as a landlord. Should you have a separate corporation through which you lease your facilities? This will help to minimize the legal exposure to your camp — and perhaps brand exposure as well if you can disassociate the leased premises from your camp (e.g., signage). In a perfect world, when camp is not in season and you are leasing out your premises to third parties, your camp's signage would be removed from public access points. This may prevent the B-roll footage and photographs that accompany the news story from portraying your camp's name and image.
- Insurance: It is critical that you explore with your insurance agent all the necessary coverages that will protect you for prior acts as well as for being a lessor of your premises. Ideally, the insurance should include crisis management coverage that will cover the costs of a firm with expertise in crisis communications, media management, and brand and reputation protection. Ensure the crisis management coverage will kick in for situations where the only harm is one to brand and reputation vs. legal liability. Make sure you have a plan for dealing with your crisis exposure from this type of risk.
- Response/Outreach to Reporter: Do I return their call or email? Will they want to know the truth? Do I have a cause of action against them for defamation if they don't set the record straight about my camp and its involvement or lack thereof? These are complex issues. Consult professionals with expertise in media relations/management before communicating with a reporter either over email or the phone. Consult an attorney with first amendment/defamation expertise to ensure your interests are legally protected.
What's in a name? You decide.
Suzanne Rhulen Loughlin is a founder of and general counsel for CrisisRisk Strategies, LLC. CrisisRisk™ works with leaders and boards of directors to identify strategic emerging threats and vulnerabilities that put critical assets — people, reputation, brand, key relationships, and financials — at risk. CrisisRisk develops strategies for mitigating those risks and prepares leadership teams to make decisions, take action, and effectively communicate when they materialize.