Communication Causes Mask Confusion

Amid a continuing pandemic with death numbers climbing quickly and vaccination rates only rising slowly, when it comes to wearing masks, we are not only a nation divided. We are a nation confused.

One of those things has to do with politics. Maybe that’s inevitable, because of our culture. But the other has to do with communication and that’s a shame because it sure feels like it didn’t have to be that way.

Case in point – a trip to the grocery store this weekend. The signs at the entrance were simple and humble. “With updated CDC recommendations, we are now strongly encouraging all individuals including those vaccinated to wear masks in our stores. Thank you.” Compliance, though, is another story. The eyeball test inside showed about half of the customers wearing masks and only a handful of the employees. Professional experience says one of the key reasons why is just simple confusion.

Let’s go back to May when the CDC, supported enthusiastically by the federal and state governments, made what history likely will end up judging as the biggest pandemic-handling communications blunder of the year and maybe an all-time strategic miscalculation. They thought “If we say ‘no more masks’ for vaccinated people, then unvaccinated people will be motivated to get shots.” They were wrong. All the public heard was the part about “no more masks.” For many, it was V-E Day and the last day of school rolled into one, with any other message lost. For others, it all seemed too simple and, consequently, caused confusion.

Fast forward to the CDC’s new message here in August. You’re now supposed to wear masks if you’re inside in a county where there is a “substantial” or “high” coronavirus transmission rate. Do you have any idea what that means where you live? Meanwhile some state and local politicians are racing to create ordinances and laws in an effort to supersede that guidance. Do you know where that stands where you live? At the time time, amateur peddlers of mask misinformation are getting their kicks by watching their likes and shares on social media skyrocket and cable TV’s professional misleaders are busy counting their money.

It’s long past time for more of those who have influence inside government to say to themselves: “What’s the information that people need to know to make good decisions?” Then, as we advise our clients, communicate that clearly, consistently, concisely and cliche-free.

If it has to change in the course of weeks or months, acknowledge that change is difficult, explain why it is necessary and embrace the fundamentals of communication over the political playbook. This crisis actually is about life or death.