The Problem with Masks

Is there a problem with masks in this country? It sometimes seems so. 

While the majority of Americans say they support wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, legions of others aren’t so sure:

  • They’re for wimps.
  • They cause other health problems.
  • The pandemic is a hoax.
  • Wearing a mask makes a political statement.

New York Times opinion writer Charlie Warzel says in a recent column that “trust in science seems increasingly fragile. That trust is endangered by what many public health experts I spoke with described as a messaging crisis.”

While we don’t share all of Warzel’s conclusions in the article, we do agree with him on one thing: Masks aren’t the real problem. The problem is we haven’t got the messages or the messengers right.

No one set of messages works for all people, no matter what the issue is. Individuals and groups have their own experiences, prejudices and life situations. The rural experience is different from the urban one. A person who knows somebody with COVID-19 will have a different view from someone who doesn’t. And receptiveness to behavior change will vary according to who they trust and believe. One of the most controversial aspects of coronavirus communications currently is who should be considered a credible messenger. 

Messaging on masks has been fraught from the beginning. The situation was so new and so much was unknown that even the experts – the medical community – sent mixed signals about whether wearing a mask could “flatten the curve.” Now that multiple studies have shown masks help stop the spread of the virus, the messaging has become more consistent. But the damage has been done.

Additionally, there has been no uniform voice on the subject, with each state, business and community often deciding for itself whether or when to suggest or mandate masks. While some local businesses required customers to wear masks as states allowed them to reopen, some leading companies only recently made it a requirement. 

Our role models and credible spokespersons have also been a mixed bag. For every famous person urging us to wear masks, it seems there’s another who tells us we have no obligation to and refuses to wear one him- or herself.

Changing behaviors is never easy. While prevailing COVID-19 messages seem to appeal to the greater good, human beings also want to know “what’s in it for me?” Perhaps that’s where some of the lines have become blurred. It took years to persuade Americans to wear seatbelts, first through a concerted advertising campaign (remember Vince and Larry, the jocular dummies torn to bits in repeated head-on crashes?) and laws mandating them. 

There are lessons here that we can learn as business leaders. Changing behavior requires us first to know our audiences and empathize with them – what motivates them and what barriers to change they face. It requires us to present consistent messages that consider humans’ tendency to resist change. And it requires credible messengers and role models, which almost every business has. 

We will never get buy-in from 100% of our audiences, whether the goal is mask-wearing or support for organizational change. But understanding and acting on the pillars of persuasion will get us far enough – almost every time.