Where I am in June

It’s June and that means I start my annual trek crisscrossing the United States for our long-time client AMSkier Insurance. AMSkier insures children’s camps (in fact, they are the largest direct insurer of camps in the country). Company president Henry Skier came up with a novel idea a couple decades ago – offer a 24-hour crisis management services to the camps they insure. And that’s where I come in, handling crises when they arise at camps in the summer months. But that’s not why I travel in June.

Several years ago, Henry asked me to fill in and do some of the staff safety training during orientation. Hmm… other than war stories from the crises I’ve managed, what did I know about training staff? Not much. But with the lure of trips to places like Malibu and Carmel Valley, and training by my colleague and friend Norm Friedman, I reluctantly agreed. I found myself in front of hundreds of counselors discussing sexual abuse and other tough topics. Frankly, I was terrified. But I was well received and reluctantly agreed to do a few other camps the next year.

Then something happened. As I discussed how to handle disclosures of abuse to a group of counselors in Chattanooga, a young woman stood up and told her fellow counselors that this very advice I had given the year before had helped her help a little girl who had been abused at home. That was the epiphany. Sure, this was not my specialty and certainly not my comfort zone. But these workshops were helping keep kids safe.

So now I’m 30,000 feet in the air en route to Texas, followed by California, Palm Desert, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina and more. I’m still not in my comfort zone, still terrified and still hate flying. But each year I agree. I just can’t get that image from Chattanooga out of my mind.

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Camps and Crises: Lessons for 2011

About this time of year, every year, I have to ask question that nobody wants to think about: what disasters could shut down a summer children’s camp?

This is the time of year when I begin speaking to the children’s camp community about managing and preparing for emergencies and crises in the coming season. I’m beginning the 2011 season with a presentation at the American Camp Association National Conference, which kicked off Tuesday in San Diego.

As you can imagine, there are certain concerns camps must be prepared for every year, like potential camper injuries. However, it’s already clear that 2011 may offer particular challenges for camps:

  • Food allergies: Has it seemed like more and more kids are coming to camp reporting food allergies? It turns out that food allergies truly are on the rise on the rise in the U.S.
  • Extreme weather: On the East Coast, we’ve been experiencing one intense winter. Experts are predicting that extreme weather may continue to be a problem this year. Unusual weather around the world is already affecting global food prices.
  • Infectious disease: With increasingly numbers of children not being vaccinated, we’re seeing an increased potential for outbreaks of childhood diseases that Americans haven’t encountered in decades, like measles and mumps. Plus, pertussis made an unfortunate comeback in 2010.

Of course, some of these concerns may seem like distant possibilities, but H1N1 took camps by surprise in 2009 and no one really knows when or how an emergency will emerge. That’s what makes it so important to prepare for every eventuality with a well thought out emergency response plan. And beyond the logistical considerations of emergency response, camps must also consider communications.

Believe it or not, camps can learn a great deal about effective communications by paying attention to corporate PR blunders. Toyota failed to communicate quickly and effectively about their massive 2010 recalls, sacrificing its reputation (see my earlier post on this). In the wake of the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP’s reputation took an even bigger hit because of their ineffective front man and misguided attempt to spin the situation.

Americans angry about the oil spill also took to Twitter and Facebook in droves, with one critic going as far as to create a Twitter account that satirized BP’s corporate PR. Social media and the rise in internet news sources are also relevant to a camp director in times of crisis. This is making it more important than ever to communicate quickly and effectively over a variety of media, even for camps.

What do you think camps should be prepared for in 2011?

(Are you at the ACA conference? You can attend my session on Thursday, February 11 at 10 AM, in Aqua 311.)

Reflections on My H1N1 Presentation

The American Camp Association’s National Conference has become a regular speaking engagement for me, and I was in Denver on Feb. 17 for the 2010 conference to present “Swine in ’09 – Lessons Learned That Will Help in 2010. Children’s camps, schools, travel programs and other who serve children were, in some cases, severely affected by the H1N1 virus during the summer 2009.

Last summer, working with a top infectious disease physician and infection control nurse, I provided crisis management consulting services for many of these programs. Recently, my client for which I provide these services, AMSkier Insurance, conducted a survey of camp experiences with the virus. Based on those results and my experience during the 2009 season, I gave a 75-minute talk.

As an aside and pat on my back, at last year’s conference in Orlando, I presented my usual topic of “Crisis Planning and Response,” and listed about eight possible “emergencies” camp directors could face in 2009. On the list was “influenza pandemic.” How about that!

Back to the point. During my session in Denver, which drew camp directors from Turkey and Russia, as well as the U.S. and Canada, I discussed seven lessons learned from the 2009 season. Some were obvious, like better disinfection and hand washing, and some technical, like identifying symptoms, quick isolation, treatment and working with  the Department of Health.

But the top issue that many camps cited in being able to effectively control an infectious disease like H1N1 was communications. Those who communicated proactively and effectively with their camp families, communities, health officials and, in some cases, the media, were not only able to better control the spread of the virus, but they built good will in the process.

In a crisis, communication is king. You hear that Tiger and Toyota?