How PR Can Influence Mask-Wearing
A recent modeling study in the journal of Nature Medicine suggests that if 95% of Americans wore masks, over 100,000 lives could be saved between now and February. While the efficacy of masks can be hard to study, most reputable research suggests that they make a tangible improvement in the health of an overall community where there is a significant spread of the COVID-19 virus. In one notable study, two masked hairstylists were symptomatic with COVID-19 but did not transmit the virus to any of their 67 masked clients. In an outbreak aboard the U.S.S Theodore Roosevelt, masks reduced the risk of infection by 70%. Scientifically, mask-wearing creates noticeable mitigation of the spread of COVID-19.
While mask-wearing may not be 100% effective in stopping the spread of the virus, it is a very powerful tool in keeping communities as safe as possible. If mask-wearing makes such a big difference, why do 14 states still not have statewide mandates? Why do so many people refuse to wear masks at all, or only wear them when it’s mandatory? Are there any steps government or health officials could take to increase the public’s trust and use of masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19?
Why Do People Choose Not to Wear Masks?
People choose to avoid mask wearing for many reasons. They find masks to be uncomfortable, are worried about their effects on their breathing and health, do not want to confront the reality of COVID-19, are rebelling against what they see as an infringement on their personal freedoms, or are worried that masks will make them look weak. In many ways, education on mask use has not been very clear. Some people do not understand that the benefits of wearing masks far outweigh the discomfort and that by wearing a mask, you could literally save a person’s life. While adapting to a new normal is difficult, and rebellion is a natural response, COVID-19 is a real, present threat, and we can’t live normally anymore.
How Can Public Relations Help?
Since the start of the pandemic, information on wearing masks has been pretty murky. Americans were originally told to save masks for healthcare workers, or they’ve heard of studies that question a mask’s effectiveness. Overall, Americans don’t understand that the brand new nature of the pandemic means that things are constantly moving with best practices changing. Many Americans are distrustful of the government or of science, so even when faced with the facts, they will choose to go out bare-faced. A uniform message could help them understand the importance of donning their masks. But what kind of messages work to change people's minds?
According to research, people respond to advertisements that show masks to be similar to safety practices we already have in place. This makes the importance of mask-wearing very simple to understand, and compares it to measures society has already adopted, such as seatbelts or helmets. In one study completed by the state of Illinois, participants were more likely to wear masks after seeing an ad that compared them to seatbelts when compared to groups that saw different types of ads.
Other research suggests that people are more likely to wear masks when they are told that wearing masks benefits others besides themselves. In an experiment by Ball State and Ohio University, 191 people were asked to listen to two arguments in support of social distancing measures- one focused on protecting themselves, one focused on protecting others. Participants were more likely to say the argument for protecting others was more convincing.
So What Does This Mean?
This research suggests that public relations can be a powerful tool to persuade Americans to wear masks during the pandemic. If government officials understand what type of messaging is convincing, they can create targeted ads around those messages. By creating simple, easily understood advertisements that follow the advice of the research, the uniform message could make a big difference in the amount of mask-wearing during the rest of the pandemic.
Caroline States is a senior from Anderson double majoring in public relations and visual communication design. States is an associate and manager with Fifth Street Communications®, a student-run public relations agency at Anderson University.