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The Big Story: The Science of Masking Kids at School Remains Uncertain

Inconclusive doesn’t mean invaluable. True, inconclusive results from scientific studies often get put on the back shelf and don’t make their way into published results. But last week when the CDC skipped over results from studies casting doubt on how much masks really do benefit young kids – it was a flat-out communications snafu.

What it Means for Your Health System

(3-minute read, 22-minute podcast)

Brilliant, experienced people across the country keep forgetting this basic lesson: Pause. Consider the consequences. Speak.

Examples? There are plenty:

  • The CDC is “file drawering” data that shows the science of masking kids in schools might not be as settled as they’ve maintained.
  • Hospital advocacy groups are responding to specific, reasonable questions about price transparency with, “It’s really hard.”
  • The FDA gave accelerated approval to a “blockbuster” Alzheimer’s drug against its own committee’s recommendation and then responded by doubling down.
  • Last year, public health leaders told everyone to hunker down at home in all circumstances – with a sudden carveout for social justice protests.
  • Local officials reopened bars and restaurants before many other businesses with convoluted explanations why drinking on a Saturday night was totally fine as long as it concluded by 10 PM. Cheers? Maybe not.

Each of these decisions was made with good intent. Some on compressed timelines with uncertainty swirling. Others were crafted in the heat of the moment – but here’s the problem: Often, those moments were either avoidable or could have been at least somewhat predicted.

On top of that, these conversations are happening at a time where people are inured to bad news. We’re sapped emotionally to the point we aren’t responding normally to tragedy  – in fact, we’re not responding to tragedy. We’re out of empathy. That means getting a critical message across may be harder than ever because people either won’t respond or will respond with skepticism.

This bleak picture coupled with missteps by the groups mentioned above are a warning to communicators about the risk of being unclear. Here are five pointers that hold true whether dealing with the heat of a crisis or a thoughtful explanation of a long-running issue like pricing:

  • Get accustomed to overexplaining things. Don’t assume your audience knows everything. The CDC and FDA, should know by now that very few people deeply understand science; therefore, simplicity and repetition are key. Same goes for the rest of us. Hand waving and saying, “It’s complicated but trust us” doesn’t cut it. Use simple language and repeat the message with empathy toward your listeners.
  • Know your audience. Understand who you’re trying to reach, their concerns, barriers to communicating with them and whom they trust. Prepare to communicate with them on issues that matter to them through their preferred channels.
  • Slow down (a little). You know to “tell your story or someone else will.” That doesn’t mean “say anything just to fill the space.” You may feel like you don’t have time, but trust us, you’ll spend more time cleaning up the mess if you’re sloppy the first go around. Pause to give everyone at the table a moment to consider and make sure you’re addressing the real issue.
  • Consider the consequences. Having understood your audience and slowed down to consider what you’re doing, think through how the message you’ve crafted is likely to be perceived. Anticipate questions. What holes will people on the receiving end try to poke in your message? Responding to questions by saying something is “really hard,” or that “hospitals are trying but maybe we should scrap the whole system,” looks like you’re spinning. You’re certainly not addressing the concerns of actual patients whose lives and wallets are at stake. To be clear: Don’t shy away from offering the kind truth and standing up for what you think is right. Acknowledge concerns; don’t brush them off.
  • Don’t be just truthful. A favorite phrase around Jarrard is “responsible transparency.” It’s the idea that we should offer more information than we’d like to because it builds trust and gives our audiences a more complete picture. Even when the information might not be what we want it to be. When the CDC fell down with the masking story, they weren’t fudging the numbers or hiding data that showed masking has negative effects. It appears they were just trying not to muddy the water. But this is a national debate about the safety of our kids and, despite the insane heat of that debate, it’s crucial to show your work, warts and all.
  • Know that some people will misconstrue, misrepresent and mislead. There are trolls and click-bait artists who will come after you no matter what. You can’t reach them. Don’t let them stop you from doing the right thing.
  • Speak with kindness and empathy. We know, a lot of us are running out of empathy. Here’s good advice from a commentary in The Wall Street Journal: “Healthcare professionals have a challenging obligation to work to understand where people are coming from, build a relationship, address their fears to help them understand, gently correct information that is wrong, admit when medicine was wrong and medical authorities misled people, motivate them based on their needs, and develop networks of support in the community.” Amen to that.