Communicating and Defending a Mask Policy

May 29, 2020

Critical takeaways:

  • Setting customer expectations is critical to maximizing acceptance of COVID-19 policy changes, and communicating clearly is the key.
  • The reputation risk of mask policies should be evaluated as a balance between the strategic risk of requiring a mask and the preventable risk of someone getting COVID-19 if you do not.
  • Do not over-index for the 20% of your audience that does not agree with your policy, but be sure to plan for them. 


A video of a cheerful Costco employee taking a full shopping cart away from a couple who refused to wear masks had more than 10 million views in the first week it was posted online. It was originally posted by the customer “on my 3,000-follower Instagram feed, mostly locals.” Deleted shortly thereafter, it nonetheless lives on, posted, shared, liked and reposted by countless others as mostly a show of support for the employee and his employer, but also as a show of support for the customer and his liberty, depending on one’s perspective.

“Hi everyone. I work for Costco and I’m asking this member to put on a mask because that is our company policy,” said the employee, whose name tag identifies him as Tison. The customer replied, “I’m not doing it, because I woke up in a free country.” Tison takes their cart away. “Have a nice day,” he said. “You are no longer welcome in our warehouse.” The customer swears at him as his cart of toilet paper, laundry detergent and other sundries disappears into the warehouse.

On Twitter, Tison thanked everyone for the support he had gotten online, which included praise from actress Busy Phillips and innumerable requests that Costco give him a raise. “I was just trying to protect our employees and our members,” he tweeted. 

Two weeks earlier, Costco CEO Craig Jelinek posted his company’s mask policy online in an open letter to Costco members. “Costco employees are required to wear face coverings, and now we are asking that Costco members do so too. We know some members may find this inconvenient or objectionable, but under the circumstances we believe the added safety is worth any inconvenience. This is not simply a matter of personal choice,” Jelinek wrote. “We believe this is the right thing to do under the current circumstances. Although some may disagree with this policy or question its effectiveness, we’re choosing to err on the side of safety in our shopping environments.”

The Centers for Disease Control continues to recommend, in addition to physical distancing, the use of “simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others.” It then undermines this guidance when it calls the gesture “an additional, voluntary public health measure.” Therein lies the issue for businesses, workplaces, schools, government buildings and other locations that intend to make mask-wearing a requirement for entry.


Communicating a Mask Policy

Setting customer expectations is critical to maximizing acceptance and adoption of any policies that change the customer experience. People expecting things to be back to normal need to hear that some changes have been made with their health and safety in mind. This is particularly critical – and difficult to manage – in retail and hospitality establishments that have often had a “customer is always right” type of attitude toward conflict between a customer and a company policy.

If you have not yet reopened your spaces to the public, then you may be able to get in front of these kinds of issues. A two-week run-up has worked best for our clients and others that I have spoken to in the last few weeks as they have worked through reopening issues. So what you need to clearly explain is what you’re requiring, why we’re doing this, what are the standards, and what are the consequences of non-compliance. And then you need to repeat those messages as you move forward on all channels where you engage with audiences that matter.

I have thought for several weeks now that some semblance of “normal” would emerge around or after June 1, and many people would come to understand the new rules, standards and expectations for behavior. That was before mask-wearing became a political issue involving armed protesters descending on state capitols and local establishments, decrying restrictions and rallying around businesses refusing to comply, at times egged on political leadership.

These demonstrations may cause some leaders to want to rethink their policies, so I believe it is instructive to evaluate the policy in terms of risk to the business or organization’s reputation.


Strategic vs. Preventable Risk

Kith’s SPE Framework sorts risks into three categories: strategic, preventable and external. A strategic risk is taken for superior business returns or performance, and the executive accepts the possible negative short-term impact to reputation in order to pursue greater long-term rewards. Organizations should be prepared to defend their reasoning for taking the strategic risk when challenged, but they should not apologize for them. 

A preventable risk arises from within an organization and produces no tangible benefits, either to the organization’s reputation or its bottom line. These are avoidable mistakes that require a rapid and genuine apology alongside a swift pledge to correct the issue and prevent its recurrence. 

In the context of COVID-19, a policy to require masks is a strategic risk, taken for a superior return – slowing the spread of the virus, keeping employees happy and healthy, providing a safe environment and being rewarded by the public for doing so – that could meet opposition from those who refuse or are disinclined to comply. Someone getting the virus as a result of being on your premises is a preventable risk. You can minimize this risk with the right rules and resources, especially those recommended by local and federal health authorities.

Before all else, be clear on your convictions. What do you truly believe in as an organization, and what value do you hold highest? When businesses, colleges, sports leagues, governments and others announced they were suspending operations because of COVID-19, the near universal justification was the protection of the health and safety of employees, customers and guests, and the general public. Now that we’re coming back, has your commitment to health and safety changed? Is it still the most important consideration?

You’ve probably spent a lot of energy and effort into rethinking format, footprint and facilities. You’ve weighed the consequences of reopening, remaining closed, or operating at lower capacities in every permutation and combination of variables. Stay true to your convictions and rational people will conclude that these decisions are being made by reasonable leaders who are trying to do the right thing. During our COVID-19 webinar series, I’ve spoken several times about what I call the 80/20 rule. Spend your efforts crafting messages for and communicating with the 80% who are reasonable and not over-indexing for the 20% who are being unreasonable. 


Refusal as an External Risk

Even as we focus on the 80%, we have to know that the 20% is there, and we have to be prepared for them. 

An external risk is one that is uncontrollable. It comes at you randomly from the outside. COVID-19 itself was an external risk, but now we know about it and can plan for it and respond to it. A customer who refuses to wear a mask and wants to fight an employee over it is, like an active shooter, an external risk.

You need to be thinking now about the consequences of that behavior. You have a well thought out plan for when somebody walks into your building with a gun (You do, right?). You’ve considered the risks and consequences of that, and you’ve changed policies accordingly, including maybe requiring people lawfully licensed for concealed carry to leave their guns at home or in their cars. Perhaps you have visibly increased security not only to deter a shooter but also to enforce a no-guns policy.

A mask policy – and any new customer requirement enacted because of COVID-19 – needs to have that same thought. Your employees need to know you have their back. Your customers need to know that you’re serious. This is a big deal, and I really believe it is an emerging issue that needs to be part of your risk planning and communications strategy.

One of the points of risk planning is to eliminate surprises. When something happens, it isn’t a surprise – you’ve already considered it. Customers should have the same expectation: no surprises. Communicate early and often – always be communicating – about what changes have been made, why, and what is expected. The 80% will agree that it’s right, even if it’s inconvenient. Be ready for the 20%, but don’t let them control the message or your policy decisions.


Filed under: Blog


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.