Skip to main content

A reflection on masks and messaging

Has anything been more polarizing than the wearing of masks? Instead of a simple and effective public health tool, it is a political statement, a social badge, a point of solidarity or conflict. During the past year, I became interested in how the request (or requirement) to wear a mask was being communicated. Now that we are into the vaccine phase of the pandemic, it may be time to look back at the way we communicated about safety earlier in the crisis as we consider how to communicate better in this new era. 


The majority of the signs below are from my upstate New York community. They were not CDC approved, government issued, health department messaging. They were created by regular people – mostly small business owners - who wanted to let customers know what the expectation was before entry. Each reflected the attitude, temperament and style of the business and the management. 


From imploring politeness to comedic tease to no-nonsense demand, public mask signage had frames, narratives, personalities and tones worthy of a thesis. I’ll let you identify them for yourself.


Now that vaccinations are underway, many of these signs have gone away. But I wonder if we are ready to let the masks go as easily as the signage. Worldwide, more people have died of COVID-19 so far this year than in all of 2020. While rich countries are opening, U.S. media reports confirm that some retail and other public-facing workers are not happy that mask mandates are relaxed (whether by state or local jurisdictions, CDC recommendations or company management) and that more customers are shopping without them. (Pause for new thought: With the dangerous spread of the Delta variant, we may go back to mask mandates.) The passionate mask divide combined with vaccine holdouts makes trusting the public hard for many to do. My husband jokes that the only people you can be absolutely sure are vaccinated are the ones wearing masks.


The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on low income individuals, as well as Black, Latino, Indigenous and other communities of color. There are valid, understandable reasons — both historic and personal —for some to be resistant to COVID vaccines. For others, access to the shot isn’t easy due to  lack of transportation, information, or time due to job or family responsibilities. Some are living in remote locations where vaccination clinics are few and far between. For some young people, parents are forbidding their vaccination, even if the child wants it. There are also disinformation campaigns targeting communities of color. All this further complicates the communication challenge. It isn’t completely blue vs. red. 


This isn’t just an American thing. In Russia, where many don’t trust the government or the healthcare system, only 13% have had both shots and 62% say they do not plan to be vaccinated. There are nearly 145 million people living in Russia. 


How do we communicate the requirements of public safety in this very complex, emotional and invisible new stage of the pandemic? Is “I trust you to do the right thing” enough? Is it clear and compelling and motivating to customers? Can regular people, shopkeepers and restaurant owners, articulate the desired behavior without requiring “show me your card?” Can they make it as clear cut as “mask up?” It may be telling that so far, I found very few signs that spelled out the difference. 


Of the ones I’ve seen, the post-vaccine mask messaging is based on personal integrity. If you indicate you are vaccinated by not wearing a mask, we believe you - but it’s up to you to be honest about it. I was in a shop recently that had an honor system policy. Every employee and customer in the store, including me who got the shot two months ago, wore a mask. 


Smart communication strategies can lead a horse to water, they can even get the horse to drink; but, unless the horse says, “this water is so cool and refreshing,” will the other horses in the barn believe that he is actually hydrated? 


Which leads me back to herd mentality in the service of herd immunity. What about the horses we run with - how much does groupthink guide decisions on masks and vaccinations? How hard is it to break through the “we don’t do that” wall? What does it take to get someone to step outside the group? Can we point to other identities where COVID vaccines are embraced and not rejected? 


I often think of the family I’d see in the grocery store where one parent would be wearing a mask, the other parent wouldn’t be, and the kids were a mix of yes and no. And the group of young people with no masks laughing and carrying on in the same store. What did it take to go with or against the group? What conversations were they having in the car before they came inside? What decision did each one make as they walked past the “Please Wear a Mask” sign? What if you wanted to wear a mask and none of your friends or your family did? 


Come to think of it, why do I assume that everyone reading this thinks the same way I do about wearing masks and getting the shot?


If someone didn’t wear a mask in the first place, hyping the relief of giving up the mask doesn’t help with vaccinations. Will perks, prizes and lotteries move people? If a person can avoid vaccination and not wear a mask, why wouldn’t they? Who would know? Only that unmasked, unvaccinated person. Maybe communications can lift up the vaccinated with values of heroism, pride, patriotism, love, communal and personal responsibility. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that group? Maybe more peer-to-peer messaging will help. Maybe cognitive dissonance and constant dishonesty will do it.   


But what about trust? Can communications build faith and confidence amongst perfect strangers in the current political climate? (This is a question we can ask about issues beyond the pandemic.) Even a hero may doubt the motives of others. Foregoing a mask means I believe you and you can believe in me. Until the trauma of the last 18 months fades into a half-forgotten memory (and it will), we might look at unmasked shoppers with a little side eye. This may be the one time that health messages from trusted messengers with hard numbers reflecting high local vaccination rates will be the only thing to convince us that, yes, the people crowded together in aisle nine are safe. 

Masks and messaging


This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 6, 2021 at 13:59 pm and is filed under Frame, narrative and message development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.