Mass-k Confusion; A lesson in mixed messages and crisis communications
- July 17, 2020
- Posted by: Paula
- Categories: COVID 19, Crisis communications, Messaging
You don’t trust us? We don’t trust you!
The wearing of masks has very much become a political issue, between those wearing them to make a statement against U.S. President Donald Trump, and those not wearing them, arguing for their personal rights and freedoms.
How did it come to this? Very simply, there was mass confusion and mixed messaging on the issue, right from the start of the COVID pandemic. And when crisis communications fails during a crisis, you lose public trust.
To be sure, top disease experts around the world, did get a lot right. They informed the public regularly even when there was little to update. They showed empathy. They simplified and repeated the same key messages, which we all heard loud and clear: Wash your hands. Socially distance six feet. Stay home if you feel sick or have a temperature.
But on masks? They not only failed to get on the same page, they were all over the place in their messaging. I suspect largely because they didn’t want to spark panic and feed a run on much-needed surgical masks, for which there already was a global shortage. If people would line up for toilet paper for a disease that didn’t even give you the runs, what would they do if told it was a good idea to wear masks?
Here’s what happened instead:
The FLIP: The World Health Organization and Center for Disease Control both said don’t wear masks. They are only needed if you are sick or looking after someone who is sick. U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams went so far as tweeting: “Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!,” he wrote. “They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!
In Canada, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam warned that masks could provide a false sense of security as they do not prevent the wearer from contracting the novel coronavirus. She also cautioned that mask wearing could encourage the wearer to touch their face more frequently, putting them at greater risk of coming into contact with the virus.
Perhaps all of this was true, but it reeked of nanny state and insulted the intelligence of intelligent people. Then came the big FLOP:
On April 4, Tam not only stopped recommending against the wearing of masks, she told reporters, perhaps unconvincingly, that homemade facial coverings could even be beneficial.
“For example, if you’re in public transit and you cannot easily practice the two metres (of physical distancing), for example, then having that additional covering, like covering up your cough, I think, is a good idea,” she said at the time.
Citing “evolving science” for the flop also contributed to the furthering of distrust. What backfired was the wishy washy messages, and the inherent condescending contradiction — masks are vital protection for health-care workers but not so much for average citizens, who don’t know how to use them correctly. Please.
Let this be a lesson to leaders to tell the truth. They should have said: Don’t buy surgical masks, they are needed for the frontline workers. If you want to give yourself a layer of added protection in public, wear homemade or non-surgical masks.
Communicating during a crisis comes down to being transparent and always telling the truth, as best you can. Speak up to people, not down, and engage them as collaborative partners coming together for the common good. Otherwise, you risk eroding the much-needed trust that’s required to gain the public’s cooperation and get through the crisis.