Messaging on masking may be wrong, but largely by omission

By Dennis Archambault

The politicization of wearing masks has been evident in Michigan since the protests in the state capitol over the governor’s shelter-in-place order. Despite the governor and other state and local leaders demonstrating the importance of wearing masks to protect the transmission of disease, individuals have felt it’s not only their civil right to determine whether or not to wear a mask during the pandemic, but it’s also a political statement.

The messaging on this basic behavior that at worst is inconvenient and unsightly for some, has been confusing since the World Health Organization advised against the widespread use of masks early on to protect the scarce supply of them for clinical workers. Naysayers argued that a simple cloth mask doesn’t protect the wearer. To complicate matters, there hasn’t been a good education program to help people understand that the point is not to protect the wearer, but to prevent the wearer from unintentionally infecting all they come in contact with.

So from the president of the United States on down, the relevance of the mask has been in question for several weeks, and the statement of political defiance has only gained momentum – until last week when Republican leaders began recommending masking.

While it’s appalling that we can’t come together as a country and adopt a simple behavior that promises to slow the transmission of the virus by up to 70 percent, communications professionals, such as Dr. Glen Nowak, former head of media and communications for the CDC, say the messaging is wrong. Rather than appeal to the common good, he says that the messaging should actually appeal to self-interest ( Keeping others safe is beside the point in an America where the individual’s interest runs contrary to the greater good. A more effective message should be, “If you wear a mask it gives you the freedom to do other things because we’re reducing the spread of COVID-19.”

A focus group would be the best judge of whether the appeal to personal “freedom” resonates with the target audience, but clearly we need to find a way to convince stubborn resisters that an uncontrollable pandemic will ultimately affect their freedom through another lockdown.

Dennis Archambault is vice president of Public Affairs for Authority Health.