Facebook Friends

By Brett Pugach
© Can Stock Photo Inc./michaeljung

Social media can, and already have, revolutionized the way camp owners, directors, counselors, campers, and parents interact. These outlets are invaluable assets for fundraising, marketing, and, most importantly, relationship-building and communication. The vast majority of campers and staff likely have social-media accounts, which have become instrumental in retaining campers. In addition to stories and shared events, the excitement about returning to camp can now easily be spread in a matter of seconds to a vast number of people. Furthermore, one never knows when a simple message from a counselor to a camper who is on the fence about coming back can turn that child around and make him or her want to return.

Unfortunately, these avenues of communication come at a price. Misuse of social media can lead to negative comments about the camp, cyber-bullying and harassment, and inappropriate comments and pictures. The exact legal risks are circumstantial and difficult to anticipate in light of the shortage of case law, especially as applied to camps. However, this article emphasizes that, for the current practical and economic climate which camps face, social media are a critical and necessary tool to maintain campers and continue to run a profitable organization.

Camp directors must balance the important rewards of social media with the legal and practical risks. Therefore, every camp should have in place a social-media policy that considers those risks, but balances the risks and rewards in a way that makes the most sense, based on the camp’s particular needs. Because a stronger social media policy detracts from the effectiveness of potential rewards, and because a less stringent social media policy exposes the camp to greater risk and liability, no one policy fits all. The type of camp, age of campers, duration of program, and various other factors should be considered when deciding how strict a social media policy should be.

Balancing Risks And Rewards Of Social Media
A day camp with very young campers or a specialty camp with multiple short programs might not yield as great of a return from allowing campers and counselors to interact throughout the year, as the relationships may not have had an opportunity to develop to the same extent as an eight-week sleep-away camp. Thus, those camps may choose a stricter social media policy that provides greater protection against potential liabilities. They might consider policies that prohibit staff members from engaging in certain interactions with campers, such as being friends on Facebook or engaging in private communications like instant messaging. Such measures can prevent inappropriate camper-staff interactions, and can shield employers from liability if policies are in place, and enforcement efforts have been made. However, overly restrictive policies, such as banning employees from having a social media account, run the risk of being found not legally enforceable.

In addition, a draconian policy equivalent to one for teacher/student relationships fails to recognize the completely different environment of the camp setting. Certainly, overly restrictive policies provide the most protection from liability, but under the same line of reasoning, no camp director is going to choose to not run any activities simply because activities increase the likelihood of injuries.

Camps that benefit the most from social media, such as extended sleep-away camps with an older clientele, are likely to consider less-restrictive policies in order to reap the greatest number of rewards. However, a less restrictive social media policy does not mean there is no social media policy.

Having a policy in place, even if not very strict, will provide a last line of defense if a claim is ever brought against the camp. The last thing any camp director wants is to be before a judge or parent unable to point to a policy that gives notice to employees of the general type of conduct that is forbidden.

Thus, such camps might consider a policy that at a minimum prohibits harassment, bullying, intimidation, sexual conduct, discriminatory language, prohibited activities (such as drinking and drugs), and inappropriate photos (like those in bathrooms of cabins, etc.). This would enable the critical communications necessary to foster relationships that lead to greater retention rates, while at the same time clearly describing prohibited conduct.

Middle-Ground Approach
Other camps might fall somewhere in between, or may value protecting against risk over potential reward, or vice-versa.  These camps might consider, in addition to the minimum protections, a middle-ground approach of allowing campers to friend their counselors (who can accept), but prohibiting counselors from affirmatively friending their campers. Such a policy would strive to eliminate the initiation of inappropriate interactions that vulnerable campers might otherwise be subjected to. Camps adopting such policies (and others) are encouraged to circulate them to parents with instructions to share the information with their children.

Social media can be an invaluable asset for maintaining campership rates. It can also pose practical and legal liability risks for camps. For this reason, all camps should develop a social media policy. For camper-staff interactions, these policies should prohibit certain highly offensive actions. However, the extent to which a camp should adopt a more- or less-restrictive social media policy depends on many factors weighing and balancing the risks and rewards of social media. With this in mind, each camp needs to consider what type of policy best meets its particular needs. Once a policy is developed, the employer must take reasonable steps to enforce it.

Brett M. Pugach , Esq., is an associate at the Newark, N.J., office of the law firm Genova Burns Giantomasi & Webster, where he practices in the firm’s Labor Law Practice Group, and has written articles on legal developments pertaining to social media policies. Having grown up in camps and coming from a family of camp directors, Brett is intimately familiar with the many challenges camps must face in today’s economic and social climate.  He can be reached at (973) 230-2096 or bpugach@genovaburns.com .