Ripping Off the Mask: What Happens When Docs Share What They Really Think on Social Media?

Too many people in the United States refuse to wear masks. And it’s costing lives.

Clinicians and other healthcare professionals are fed up with the pushback. That’s understandable. Doctors, nurses and the entire healthcare industry has been working beyond the point of exhaustion to care for those sick with and dying from COVID-19. They’ve put themselves at risk. They’ve worn masks for hours a day – and some are getting flak for recommending that everyone does the same.

As a result, many clinicians are turning to social media to stress the importance of mask wearing (see #WearADamnMask). Conversations that started as pro-mask posts have become more blunt, even aggressive.

It’s laudable that clinicians are stepping into the messy world of social media on this issue, and healthcare organizations should use this enthusiasm and activity for good. The risk, of course, is that things get too heated and the clinician goes too far, putting the employer in a bind.

To prevent this, healthcare leaders might consider these approaches to help employees use their personal platforms for good and avoid getting sucked into the mire.

Set expectations

If you have a social media policy, dust it off and make necessary changes. Here are some tips to get started. If you don’t have a social media policy, you’re welcome to call us. Make sure that all employees have access to the policy so that:

  • They understand that anything they say on personal channels could come back on the organization, even if it’s not directly related.
  • You’ve covered your bases in case an employee steps out of line.

Pick the right messengers

Or, “encourage” the right messengers. Your marketing and communications teams should have an idea of who within the organization has a strong personal presence online. Various social media listening and analytics platforms can help simplify the process of finding people (internally and externally) who are talking about mask-wearing in your community. Identify employees with a significant number of followers (these will often be physicians) and those with a unique, pithy tone. Ask them directly about their experiences with social media, why they use it, what they hope to accomplish and what they would like to see from the organization to support them.

Give them cover

Your organization needs to speak out first if you’re going to ask your people to speak out. How can you ask your clinicians to speak out if your CEO isn’t on the record with masking? Taking a stand as an organization does a number of things. First, it shows people that you’re out on the limb with them. Second, it provides a rallying point. As noted above, it’s good to proactively seek internal champions, but it’s also good for champions (internal and external) to find you. Do that by being vocal, planting a flag and letting folks come to it. Third, it sets ground rules and offers a reference point. Again, this whole thing could get dicey. You can help your champions know what is acceptable by being vocal as an organization, sharing content that is true to your voice and objectives, deploying tactics and messages that you support.

Equip the messengers

After reviewing relevant policies, discuss the goals your organization has for mask-wearing. As much as possible, make it specific. For example, “Within two weeks, everyone coming through our doors will be wearing a mask.”

Individual employees are in a position to provide air cover for these objectives, using the inherent trust they’ve earned as clinicians to support the stance of the organization – which is more impersonal. Remember, people trust their doctor.

Be mindful that equipping people to be effective in their own campaigns on their own channels doesn’t mean dictating what they say. Do not script social media posts for them. Their audiences will recognize a forced message and lose trust in the very messengers you’re trying to elevate. Instead, equip them by:

  • Affirming their desire to speak out. Simply knowing that their employer has their back (assuming they adhere to all appropriate policies) is empowering and will encourage people to take a stand.
  • Providing data and resources. Give employees easy access to information gleaned from local and state health departments, your organization, community leaders, etc. Be responsibly transparent about what’s happening within your facilities and ensure that your staff understands what it means and how you’re responding to any given situation. The more information employees have, the less they’ll have to worry about finding the right information or getting it wrong as they craft their own messages

Make it personal

For at least some people, simple appeals to authority or decency  – Wear a mask because that’s the rule and Wear a mask because others are at risk –  haven’t worked. Next step? Encourage employees who are posting about mask wearing to make it personal. People want to get back to “normal” as soon as possible, right? That can happen a lot sooner if everyone wears a mask. Want to go out to eat? Wear a mask. Or perhaps, Want to go back to the gym? Wear a mask.

Make it economic

Similarly, appealing to the economic realities can be effective. We all want – and need – businesses to reopen, jobs to return and the economy begin recovering. Mask-wearing is a simple way to help that process along. We also now know that not shutting down and letting the virus run its course likely wouldn’t have made much of a difference with the economy. According to the New York Times, new studies out of Sweden show that, ”Not only have thousands more people died than in neighboring countries that imposed lockdowns, but Sweden’s economy has fared little better.” This provides at least some response to people who believe the cost to the economy has been worse than the cost in lives.

Certainly, conspiracy theories being what they are, there is a too-large segment of the US population who will not be convinced by any of these arguments, even if it is a doctor presenting them. However, in any campaign we still must work to convince as many people as possible. And, it is important to try and counteract the endless stream of noise and misinformation being spewed online about the virus. Healthcare organizations working valiantly to care for their communities as the spread of COVID-19 accelerates once again should deploy every tool and empower every spokesperson possible in this frustrating, unnecessary yet very real fight. Cover your employees who are asking others to cover their faces.

David Shifrin
dshifrin@jarrardinc.com