Paris Semansky and Patricia Hoffer: Communications Matters - Engage Early, Engage Often

Cover art for episode 66 of Healthcare Change Makers

(Access show transcript) Paris Semansky and Patricia Hoffer are at the helm of Communications at their healthcare organizations, shattering stereotypes about the “why” of their work.

Show Summary

Paris Semansky is Director, Communications and Public Affairs at CAMH. This role urges her to wear a variety of hats, including being a brand protector, advocate, and problem-solver.

Patricia Hoffer also wears a number of hats while being Chief Communications Officer and Vice President, External Relations at St. Joseph’s Health Care London. She takes pride in leading a diverse and dedicated group of communicators and storytellers. 

In this episode, Paris and Patricia share key strategies that help them ensure their teams succeed in the healthcare setting, their thoughts on strategic integrated communications, the importance of removing the noise that comes with their jobs, and more! 

Mentioned in this Episode


Imagine you could step inside the minds of Canada's healthcare, leaders glimpse their greatest fears, strongest drivers, and what makes them tick. Welcome to Healthcare Chang Makers, a podcast where we talk to leaders about the joys and challenges of driving change and working with partners to create the safest healthcare system.

Philip De Souza: Hey, listeners. It's Philip from HIROC here. How's your day going? Mine is going pretty great as today's episode features not one, but two amazing healthcare change makers. We've got Patricia Hoffer from St. Joseph's Healthcare London, and Paris Semansky from CAMH. Now, I must add for complete transparency today's subject matter revolves around all things communications and strategy. So pretty much this episode is geared for me. All kidding aside, over the past sixty-plus episodes we've produced, I think the concept and value of communications popped up almost every time. So we thought it would be great to have two healthcare communications professionals on the show. Yes, there will be some fantastic takeaways on how you and your organizations can be better equipped to communicate either internally or externally, but we also take time to recognize the importance of comms teams in healthcare and the value they bring to your communities. So let's get to it.

I'm probably biased today because the guests we have, they're from the comms world and in healthcare, and we're so delighted to have Patricia and Paris with us today. Welcome.

Patricia Hoffer: Hello. Thank you.

Paris Semansky: Thank you.

Philip De Souza: And so let's get right into the questions. Why don't you tell our listeners a bit about yourselves, where you work and what you do? We'll start with you Patricia.

Patricia Hoffer: Well, so Patricia Hoffer, and I've been in communications, public relations, journalism, storytelling for, gosh, more than 30 years. In my current role, I'm the Vice President of External Relations and the Chief Communications Officer at St. Joseph's Healthcare London. I have the pleasure of working and leading a CAMH's team. It's a pretty diverse and skilled and dedicated group of creatives, storytellers, content generators.

I also lead the volunteer services department here at the hospital at the organization, and that's a team of five and over 700 volunteers, and care partnership, which is something that's really close and dear to my heart. That is our care partnership office. We have over a hundred care partners and these are people who are patients, families, caregivers who have a lived experience with us and they contribute to the design and delivery of our programs and services and make sure that we stay grounded in the needs of the people we serve.

Philip De Souza: Wow, that's a lot of hats you wear, Patricia.

Patricia Hoffer: It is a lot of hats, but they all converge really nicely. They all align and it makes for a very rewarding position.

Philip De Souza: Excellent. How about you, Paris?

Paris Semansky: Hi, I am just so excited to be here. Thanks for the invite. So I'm Paris Semansky. I'm the director of Communications and Public Affairs at CAMH. We're the largest mental health hospital in Canada located in downtown Toronto. It's so interesting to me, Patricia to hear you talk about your role and I think there's so much that's similar in our roles and so much that is shaped in a little bit of a different way. I know we're going to talk a little bit more about this, but that speaks I think to communications being such a broad... It's one word, but it means a whole bunch of different things and it can mean a whole bunch of different things, especially in a healthcare context.

So for me, in my role, I lead our internal and external communications, our public affairs, which I deem as a bit more of a broader public policy and advocacy, sees us take on a lot of social justice issues, government relations, and then increasingly a lot of relationships with different partners and stakeholders in the community. So we think about ourselves as media strategists, issues managers, writers, designers, translators, web developers, digital designers, photographers, storytellers. We're stakeholder engagement experts, we're public policy advisors, we're brand protectors, we're advocates, and I think what we're increasingly trying to demonstrate is that we're connectors and we're problem solvers. So that's how we try to think about ourselves and position ourselves within our organization.

Philip De Souza: I love all that and I feel like we should take exactly what you said, what we do so that we can make a template for all comms people across in healthcare and say, hey, show this to your leaders so they can see exactly everything they do. I really appreciate that and I also love the fact that how you brought up the fact that it's one word, but it means so many different things. That's so true.

So you did hit touch upon my next question. It's like you're psychic. As communications leaders in the healthcare sector, we'd love to hear your thoughts then on the value of strategic integrated communications. Paris, you touch a bit about that and how all the stuff we do, so maybe we'll start with you on that one.

Paris Semansky: Yeah, for sure. So this is something I've thought a lot about. I had the joy of doing and then finishing, the joy is really in the finishing, my master's recently in communications management, and it just finished last month. So this idea of what it means to be a communicator has been really front and center for me for the last couple of years as I've done that work. I think for me, the biggest way I think about the value of strategic integrated comms, or another way to think about it is communications at the senior table or that sort of thing, is I think we should be thinking about communications as a strategic management function. So when we think about management functions of organizations, we go to finance, we go to HR, we go to operations, those kinds of things. They're critical. There's no question about that, but communications is also a very particular skill set. When it goes really wrong, there are major implications for us.

So when our reputation, when our brand either takes a hit or isn't consistent with what actually happens within our healthcare organization, that's a problem. That's everybody's responsibility, but it's certainly on communications, I think, to really be, I think about us as boundary spanners or constant environmental scanners. We're constantly looking at what's going on in the world. So we have a view that I think is pretty unique and we have contact with the outside world in ways that rightly so in organizations, especially when we're doing things like delivering healthcare, we're heads down folks who are doing that work and they're focused on it, as they should be. So who then is responsible for figuring out what's going on around us and how we respond to that? I really see that as the communicator's role.

Patricia Hoffer: I think that's brilliant. I think to build on that a bit, the role and the value is exactly what Paris talked about from the perspective of driving culture, improving and strengthening our brand and our reputation, and making that alignment of what are the priorities of the organization? What is the strategy and the vision of the organization and how does that converge with our community? How does that converge with the needs of the people that we serve? As strategic communicators, we have that ability to illuminate those priorities and make them relevant and make them resonate for people. So I really see that. Build on what Paris said to build, it's really about building those connections, making it relevant, making it relatable, and then also bringing in that risk mitigation, that brand reputation management all together in a way that from a communication perspective and from a strategy perspective, we can pull all those pieces together.

Paris Semansky: I just want to jump in too and say I agree with everything you've said, Patricia. I think it's this interesting thing. I think as communicators, the things that people know we can do are the things like the posters and the messages and that sort of thing. I think it's both our partners across hospitals, healthcare organizations seeing us as partners in more than just that sort of thing. I also think it's on the communicator to position ourselves in that way, to bring to the table more than just, I say, we can make your poster better, but we can also probably make this thing better. So to engage early, to engage often, and I think it can feel nerve wracking sometimes as a communicator to sit up and say, well, this is what we actually think is happening in community and how that aligns or doesn't align with what we're doing as an organization. I think that's actually a responsibility of ours and I think maybe not one that comes across all the time when we're just drafting the comms plan.

Patricia Hoffer: It drives to, for me, that concept of why, and I'm a big believer in the Simon Sinek's Start With Why. So to your point, Paris we're known for the what and the how. When we go back to the why, then that's where the strategy comes in and that's where the purpose and the matter comes in.

Philip De Souza: I'm going to challenge you both now. Everything you're saying, I'm like yes, more. What tips can you give the communicators in those teams to find a way to connect with those leaders and say, hey, we're more than posters and PowerPoints, but what has worked for you?

Patricia Hoffer: So I think, and Paris touched on this a little bit, I think it's finding that balance of when is the right time to engage communicators and engage the communication department or your communication strategist, because there are times when, my experience has been, we come to the table too early. The plan isn't completely formulated or the vision isn't clear, although I would argue that comms has the ability to play that role. It's when there's an absence of a strategy or a plan and comms becomes that plan that things start to go off the rails. So it's really about finding the right time to say, okay, when do we engage. You can engage early, we step away, give some advice, and then come back when it's perhaps fleshed out a little bit more.

The other piece that I think is really important is taking a team approach. When I arrived at St. Joseph's, the communication department somewhat was very structured by portfolio. One person was assigned a particular area. There was a lot of onus and responsibility to build a relationship and understand and build a depth of expertise around that area. We've really shifted that model and to be more of a team approach. When you have a team approach, you bring much more diversity of thought, much more creativity, much more strategy to the table. So by nature of the work, communication is a collaborative endeavor. I respect that there are departments out there that maybe don't have teams of people, but there's always synergy and there's always benefit to bringing just more than one voice around a table.

So I think that's a crucial learning for me that over the years is the benefit and the impact and the power of teams and collaboration. Fighting against that misconception that comms is the strategy and really helping leaders understand that our goal is to take your plan and enable success and make it sing, and no matter what it is. Whether it's an issue that we're trying to manage or it's a great story that we're trying to tell, when we know what you're trying to achieve, we can come alongside you and make that happen.

Paris Semansky: Interesting. You talk about the team approach because Patricia, we haven't talked about this before, but we did a really similar thing actually at CAMH. We have some folks who were leads in certain areas, a bit of a one window in for certain internal clients, but similar to what sounds like you we're really matrixed where we're all accountable for core things together. We each have our strengths, we each have a certain set of knowledge, but I agree with you completely. I think it's really important that we have different perspectives weighing in on different topics. I can't agree with you more on comms becoming the strategy, being a really difficult thing. I think you and I have had this conversation before around often that happens with EDI portfolio pieces.

The piece I'd say that's worked for me and it sounds a bit dark is don't waste a crisis. So I think a crisis of any kind is one of the best ways to demonstrate to leadership that communications is not just about your poster. Sometimes a best case scenario is you've been in the room enough to help mitigate crises in the first place, but probably not all the time. Some of them are, you can't mitigate, right? Just crises and issues or just part of what it is. I think when we have had the opportunity, and I say this in different roles, different portfolios, organizations, when communicators have the opportunity to be at decision-making tables in the middle of a crisis, we show our full scope of practice. We show our ability to be strategic, we show our ability to think about the broader community, about stakeholders, about government, about media. Then yes, of course there's messaging and there's ways that it has to look a certain way after.

I think for some communicators, COVID was that. There was a real chance to be at the table and really part of how are we in this ongoing persistent crisis? How are we helping to shape the strategic response of the organization? Then I think that has been one of the best ways in to demonstrate that value. You're not saying we told you so because that would not be collaborative, but you're definitely speaking up when you think that there's a reason to speak up and ahead of giving those warnings. Then it only takes a couple of times for those warnings to become true for your advice to be seen as part of the strategic value of the organization.

Patricia Hoffer: I think to build on that a bit, Paris, it's also that concept of bringing communications to the table early. Don't put us on the back foot all the time and be transparent with us, be open with us, tell us where the risks are so that we can be prepared. So when it comes to that crisis, so many times that crisis or that issue, there was a spark of the potential of that very early on. Bringing your communications experts around the table to help identify what those potential risks are is so critical. We spend a lot of time, as you know, mitigating and thinking about every potential scenario. We have this reflection where we will do, for an example, a tough Q&A. I've been in a room where a leader will say, do you really think they're going to ask us that question? Well, they could. Probably not, but it's our job to think of every possible question that could come out of this, and that is something that I think is often underestimated.

Philip De Souza: No, absolutely. My next question, I think you've answered a couple of them, but I'll ask it anyways. In your personal opinion, what are three to five strategies that are integral to ensuring that your comms team can succeed in a healthcare setting?

Paris Semansky: Patricia's already laid this out. I think all comms teams, all hospitals at a corporate level, and certainly all comms teams have still quite a way to go on diversifying their teams. I mean diversity in a whole bunch of different ways, but I think that that's really critical. I think one of the core things we can do to make our teams successful is to have our team not all be the same in background, experience, socioeconomic background, racial background, religious background. There's so many different components to that. I think we see in action different perspectives come out when we bring broader perspectives to the table. So I think that's the shaping of who your team is. I think comms, it's a bit of a funny industry because there are always cutting edge things happening and then there are always strategic things that will always remain true. So I think one of the things that I think a lot about is what does it mean to be constantly up skilling ourselves and constantly learning?

I'm not probably going to be really learning how to do certain things on, none of us can use TikTok now, but all I say on other channels, but I better understand why they're important and I better understand what they mean for certain audiences. So I think that's an onus on more senior level or senior folks on your team is to be constantly learning and to be learning from the new folks you have coming in and to be getting new folks as often as possible. I think that's really important. Then I really think this applies to any team. I think how we see ourselves as leaders in managing a team of people who support each other and have each other's backs who are accountable to each other and flexible with each other.

I think for me is my biggest pandemic learning is I really love work and I really want to work with people who love work. So how do we do meaningful things together, be inspired by mission, vision, values and a sense of purpose, which I think most of us in healthcare are, or else we wouldn't be here, but then how do we also say, and you get to be a whole person. I think, one, it's you get the best out of people when you do that. So there's some productivity tips in that, but good grief, life's too short. So I think life's too short to work on crummy teams. So I just think that's for me been the biggest focus over the last little bit.

Patricia Hoffer: I agree with the points that Paris has made, and I'll just reiterate some of the ones that I mentioned earlier that sense of engage our team early on, engage comms early, and leverage the expertise and the perspective. I think the other one is provide time and opportunity and space to be proactive versus reactive because that it fuels creativity. It allows time for that strategic approach that we talked about. So when we're working in real time in a constant churn of either issues or things that come at the last minute, that stifles that ability to bring that creativity and that innovation that for comms teams, especially in healthcare, often gets sidelined, because we're so caught up in the doing and so caught up in trying to stay on top of it all. I certainly try and find those opportunities on our team to say, okay, where can we just grab a little bit of space to breathe and to have some creativity and have some fun? Because back to Paris' point, that's so critical from a well-being perspective.

I think the other thing that we touched upon is making sure that communications has a seat at the leadership table. I can't emphasize that enough, because without that we don't have that line of sight on, not just issues, but on opportunities that others won't think about from a communications perspective or from a storytelling perspective or from a member brand perspective. So have that seed at the table in some form that is direct. That it can't be somebody's going to sit there and then relay it back, because it gets lost in translation. Our communicators' brains, we operate differently. So having that seat at the senior leadership table in some fashion to drive the communication strategy and think strategically from a communication perspective is critical for success. Communications can't be successful if they're not at the table.

Philip De Souza: I love how you both brought up the fact that teams need that space, that time to just be and think and be creative. So something that we do in our team is every few months, for example, we'll go to the art gallery just to have a morning just to see something different that's not healthcare. Then we talk about the things we see. Some instances, the things we see we're like, wow, we could totally use that for this campaign, or we can use elements of something. Say we read something on the wall, we could use how they wrote that or whatever the case may be.

Patricia Hoffer: Well, and it allows a connection to our community in a much different way when we step outside. I love that, Philip. It reminds me of when I first started, that was one of the first things I did with our team is we went on a field trip to the museum, to London Museum, to the art gallery here and just walked around, and like you said, absorb the art, talk about the art. It's a connection in a completely different way. It gives us a different perspective. All I said to the team was, you may take something away that applies to our role, but it also, you may take something away that just fuels you personally. Either way, that's a good thing.

Paris Semansky: I'm actively taking notes right now. Thank you.

Philip De Souza: You're so funny. Speaking of that joy, I want to ask you both. Is there an initiative that you've worked on that brought you real joy, that left you beaming with pride?

Patricia Hoffer: I think it goes back for me to the realignment of our team, to be honest, and moving away from that siloed, somewhat specific approach. Now we have a team that works in a different way than we did before. This was a key learning from the pandemic, because the pandemic really meant that whatever portfolio or responsibility you had before was out the window and it was about here's the work, how are we going to get it done? So it was one of those silver linings that we took away and said after we emerged from that, what was good about that situation and how do we continue to enable it? So now we have a team that it works better in my opinion. The team finds those synergies easier and we've just found ways to be supportive and be collaborative, not just in the work, but outside of the work as well. It's created greater resiliency and purpose, I would say, for the work of the team. So I'm proud of the team and how far they've come from that perspective.

Paris Semansky: I'm in the same head space, Patricia. I think there are lots of campaigns or this or that, and those are great, but oftentimes the things that look really good externally are the things that are maybe the messiest or the least joyful internally. Not all the time, but that can sometimes be the case. I think I'm exactly in the same space as you. I feel like the work that, and I put this all on the entire team, our entire public affairs team, the work they have all done to show up for each other and for the work in such a supportive way and being also committed to bringing our whole selves to work.

For example, this is so small, but we have a little WhatsApp chat for our leadership team, so myself and our managers on our public affairs team. It's, oh, who should I go to for this or this or that? It's work stuff. It's also a lot of cat memes. It's also a lot of my kid threw up today. My emails are going to be a bit slower today. Half of our leadership team has our moms with young kids. I can't tell you the difference that's made for the other folks on the team to understand what that morning looked like for folks. Also, for other people who maybe are going through some difficulties with caring for for a parent or are really doing some work on themselves from a therapy perspective and need time to do that. Just this idea of when we start to open ourselves up a little bit, it can feel like we're being maybe too vulnerable or it can feel like we're not keeping boundaries up.

I think it's part of how we show up with our whole selves is we're also giving permission to each other to show up as our whole selves and we're just going to get better work as a result. It's also a product. Again, we're going to get better work. We're going to have people feeling more deeply committed and connected to each other because they actually really understand why that person needs that. No one should have to justify taking a vacation. That's not what I mean, but when they are off, it's like, oh, I'm so glad for them. They really need this, this, and this. Oh, I can't wait to monitor the media inbox while they're gone. There's a genuine sense of, oh, I get to help this person who I care about in our work so that they can be supported in their lives.

There's this stat, I don't know what exactly. I'd have to find the exact reference for it, but this idea that your direct manager has a bigger impact on your mental health than your spouse and I believe that's true. I feel, and it's not always the case, I don't always get it right, but when I think about our team, I think about my direct managers and then the people they manage. I think about that's maybe if you then extend that to their immediate family. My hope is that that's however many 50, 60, a hundred people, if you keep spreading it out, whose lives, mental wellness, mental well-being are better because they work in an environment that supports them. I think that we do good work is incidental to that.

Patricia Hoffer: No, it's true. I was having a conversation just earlier this week actually with a colleague and we were chatting about how the workplace and leadership has shifted so fundamentally. I've been around for a long time and I remember the phrase of, you leave your stuff at the door. Come to work, and that is just not the case anymore.

Philip De Souza: No.

Paris Semansky: Yeah.

Patricia Hoffer: Leadership aside, as individuals, we have a responsibility and I think an accountability to each other to provide those environments where people can feel safe. We do have to balance, of course, being an employer and what that responsibility is, but we can't expect people to leave their, I won't say the explicative that will get beeped out, but to leave their stuff at the door. It's just not possible. Our work and our life, it's too intertwined to do that and we have to recognize that across the board.

Paris Semansky: I think it provides value too. I think there's also not even just the value of productivity and trust. When those things are in place, things happen faster. When trust is in place, my goodness, you can move so much more quickly. I think there's also lived experience, and lived and living experience is a word that gets thrown around a lot. I think there can be a safety to bring your own ideas about something based on who you are, based on your specific demographics, experience, that sort of thing. If it feels safe to do it in non-work ways. So I think that's also, we just get better advice.

Patricia Hoffer: Well, and when you know and you can feel that you're being seen that also has a huge impact on your work.

Paris Semansky: Yeah, absolutely.

Patricia Hoffer: So even if you don't actually vocalize or share that story, but that it's seen, it's heard, it's recognized by the people around you, then it impacts your work in a positive way, I would hope.

Philip De Souza: I think it's so amazing that we had this conversation on safe spaces and the value of connectedness of our team members. I think Paris said it. When we bring ourselves and we feel safe and comfortable and creative, we do. The team, and I know Patricia mentioned it with the redesigning of a team, the people around in the organization, the people in the community, your friends, your family I can guarantee we'll see the impact the team and their work has because they feel so safe and connected and part of that team. So I really appreciate that we spoke about it today.

Paris Semansky: Mm-hmm.

Philip De Souza: So shifting a bit, what do you personally do to remove noise that comes along with our job from time to time? How do you both stay motivated and focused on work that matters and not get bogged down by things that may not prove to be impactful or could be a hindrance?

Paris Semansky: I feel like this is a forever question. I think in any organization, big or small, how do you stay focused on the stuff that matters? Was at a session recently and they were talking about getting your altitude right. So getting the what level are you at and how difficult it can be as a manager or in different kinds of roles if you're expected to be, I'm using hand gestures which you can't see, but if you're expected to be up here and then all of a sudden you're supposed to go back down into the details. Then you're supposed to go way back up. This is a luxury I think probably for Patricia and I because in hospitals where we have some resource for teams and other organizations are only looking at one or two people. So it's definitely a privilege that we have to have that, but is really understanding the shape of your team in terms of what are you expecting people to focus on at each level.

I think where we had come from was our managers were doing a boatload of doing, and they should do some doing. I do some doing. You shouldn't just be pie in the sky, just thinking thoughts all day, but I think you really need to think about what does that look like? So I would say that really practically understanding what level of thing do you have each level of person at. Then I also think it goes back to some of that psychological safety, that sense of your team having your back and feeling like you know what you're driving toward as a team so that you at any level can feel confident or comfortable saying no to something or saying, no, not right now. Knowing to go to your manager and say, this feels like a thing this person really wants and I get that, but it doesn't feel like it's maybe the best use of our time or this or that. I think that empowerment is really hard, but I think is really, really important.

Then I think there's also some other practical things that I have not totally nailed down. I'm still trying to figure them out even for myself and then trying to share them with other members of my team. I'm trying to do things with my calendar, which sounds really basic. We had a beautiful time of meetings free Mondays that went well for a while and then got collapsed by life. I do try not to have any recurring meetings on Mondays. So it can either be filled with more urgent things that have to be taken care of so it doesn't fill up the rest of the week, or ideally it's your brain is much better at a Monday than it's a Friday. Meetings free Fridays are fine, but you're not going to get real work done, brain work done.

Then the other thing I've done, and this has been a bit more successful is because I know on Fridays I'm not going to be doing a lot of great thinking work, I have blocked out my afternoons for coffees and conversations and in person or that sort of thing, which I also think can fill us up in a different way and keep us focused on the why of what we do and give us good advice on the how.

Patricia Hoffer: So all of that, and I'll take a little bit of a different tact. I go back to starting with the why and focusing on and trying to stay grounded on why are we doing this work? We actually did as part of a team retreat a couple of years ago, what is our departmental why? Why do we get up? I have a saying that people have come to know me for is why am I throwing the covers off in the morning? So that helps and obviously it's easy to lose track of that and lose sight of that when we get into the muck, but staying grounded in why are we doing in this work?

The other piece is that I think is really critical is asking for help with the things that we don't know how to do well. So focusing on the work, I try to focus on the things that I'm good at that I know I can do quickly and without too much angst and those things that I'm not good at. Those things where there's somebody else on the team that's really good at, then it's asking for their help and their support because we're not good at everything. If we built our team well, we built a team that leverages each other's support strengths and weaknesses. Then from a practical going back to your calendar reflection, Paris, I try, and again I don't succeed at this every day, but maybe three days out of the week when I come in the morning, I do not open my emails.

Paris Semansky: Oh.

Patricia Hoffer: I really spend about 15, 20 minutes thinking about what is success going to look like at the end of this day? How am I going to know that this was a good day, a productive day? That just allows a bit of a grounding in what do I want to get done? What interactions am I going to have, and before jumping right into it. It's so easy to come in and just, even before you come in honestly, and start triaging emails and start making the to-do list and start getting really bogged down in the what. So just spending a bit of time thinking about, okay, how am I going to manage this day?

Then the connections piece is huge as well. I remember having a conversation with another leader about having had a great day and what was the reflection about what made that day so positive? It was about connection. It was about having connected and connections in a number of different ways. I'd had an interaction with a student, I had an interaction with a colleague from a former role that hadn't talked to in a while. Yes, they can be 15 minutes, they can be half an hour, but they provide a spark that often gets lost when we're just heads down, get it done 12 hour days and turning it out.

Philip De Souza: I love that. Not checking email, because it's true. As you were saying it, Patricia, I was like, yeah, I wake up, I open my email, and I'm doing all this triaging, and then I actually forgot. I actually forget, oh, I actually need to talk to so-and-so today, or I want to take 10 minutes to do this today. I don't, because you're right. I got into my email. So at that point you brought up Patricia. It's definitely easier said than done for me.

Patricia Hoffer: It's easier said than done. Then there's another piece of it which is circling back at the end of the day before I leave to say, okay, did I hit the mark? There are times when you don't hit the mark and you have to be okay with that, but it goes back to that breath and that space and...

Philip De Souza: Self-awareness.

Patricia Hoffer: A hundred percent.

Paris Semansky: I think we can talk for hours about all of these things. I think it also goes back to though the sense of urgency and the sense of... I think it's in roles for a lot of us. I think I'm interested if that looks a little bit different sometimes for women when it feels sometimes like we've got clocks on us where we need to prove ourselves or if we're younger and we haven't had kids yet, and maybe we want to, maybe there's a sense of I've got to get to a certain spot before I have kids. Because I'm going to be out of the workplace or if it's later we're trying to justify working hard because we've had the time out. Believe me, I think it's not just about children. I think it's a culture piece across organizations.

I love what you're saying, Patricia, because I think sometimes we can say a lot of these things, but then if we're just saying them and not doing them as leaders, we're not actually giving permission to our team to do them too. I think that's so important that we actually say to our teams, this is what I need to do to be able to do my work and to continue to be a whole human person, and you can too. There isn't a penalty for that and none of us need to be in so much of a rush. I think generationally that's a thing. It's interesting. I wonder if a generation that's not boom or not Gen X, this millennial generation that's coming up, that really I think is part of how work has gotten reshaped. I think Gen Z too, but I think millennials with young kids are just saying, I don't want to take a step back out of work, but I also am not willing to work and only do work.

I think it's a very interesting moment that we're in. I think this sense of urgency wherever we can... We are not the ones doing the surgeries.

Patricia Hoffer: Yeah.

Paris Semansky: No one's dying our clock.

Patricia Hoffer: That's right.

Philip De Souza: Another reason why I wanted to you both on this podcast is because, this may sound corny, but I look to both of you, because you exude this confidence. I can hear it through your voice. Everything you do is grounded in empathy. So where did you both pick that up from? Is this is something that you're just... Obviously they say that our surroundings are what create us. So is there something from your surroundings that shaped you both?

Patricia Hoffer: Well, I think there's always a lived experience that fills into that. I would say though that communication and storytelling by essence requires you to be empathetic.

Philip De Souza: Yes.

Patricia Hoffer: Requires you to have that ability to listen and put yourself in somebody else's shoes. So I think it's the nature of the work. I think it's the nature of who we are as individuals. I've had the benefit of doing a lot of volunteer work, which also drives, I would say, that ability to be immersed in environments that have a diverse perspective and a diverse group of voices around the table that you're constantly being challenged by, that you're learning from. So I think it's really the nature of the business that we're in. Not to say that non-communicators empathetic, and I think by virtue of working in a healthcare setting. I want to go back a little bit to your question about the misconception in this business. I think there were two and one we've touched on. One is that concept that comms is the strategy, but the other one is this concept that communications is impervious to the trauma that comes from the work that we do.

Paris Semansky: Oh, gosh. Yeah.

Patricia Hoffer: I did a recent chat here locally with IABC, the International Association and Business Communicators chapter around the impact of communications and crisis work on our health and well-being. I think there's a misconception that we can swoop in and manage an issue and protect the organization and protect others from crises and that there's no impact on us as communicators. It's certainly not to the degree that it would impact a frontline staff, but there are other areas like patient relations and comms that are immersed in traumatic events and we don't take the time. I don't think we spend enough time thinking about that and addressing that and I really hope that's probably a whole other podcast where like-

Philip De Souza: Oh, absolutely.

Patricia Hoffer: Around that, the vicarious trauma of communications work.

Philip De Souza: I'm happy you brought that up, Patricia, because it's so true. Storytelling is in our DNA, but those stories aren't always rosy stories.

Paris Semansky: Mm-hmm. 

Patricia Hoffer: No, they absolutely are not and we don't pay attention to the triggers. Going back to individuals and what they're going through, what triggers an individual who's covering a story in the moment of crisis or is the communicator on call and doesn't have a choice to say and opt out of covering that particular or dealing with that particular crisis? How are we making sure that we're putting the right supports in place? I'm not by any means saying that we get to step away, but we do need to do a better job of checking in during and of making sure that we've put some real wraparounds those individuals afterwards. We tend to do the crisis and move on to the next one.

Paris Semansky: I think I would say, and this isn't about naming names, but definitely naming industries. I came up in politics and politics is one of the least healthy work environments that you will find and I don't think anyone who's worked in politics would say that's not the case. I think a lot of what I have learned about leadership and about empathetic leadership has been it can go either way. I think you can either have poor experiences and not change your own approach or it can impact you in a way that you decide you will not do it like that. So for me, I really did have lots of good leaders in politics. It's not to say I didn't, but the culture itself is not made for people to be held as whole people. So I think it's been the difficulty and lack of care that sometimes is in that space has directly impacted how I've approached leadership outside of politics.

Philip De Souza: Yeah. I like that. So for you, Patricia, you are passionate about volunteerism and community development and have been involved in a number of not-for-profit organizations. So what fuels your motivation to give back, and in what ways do you think volunteerism helps you become a better communicator?

Patricia Hoffer: It's always been in my DNA. It's always been a philosophy of mine that we have a responsibility actually to support and to give back to the communities where we live and we play and we work and we go to school and it makes our communities better. Whether it be the arts or social justice issue or the environment and whether it be through philanthropy or whether it be through volunteerism, it enables something that may already be happening to go from great to awesome in my opinion. So there's so many organizations, they get their base funding and we certainly see that with our foundation here, that when donors step up, it takes what care was great and makes it excellent. It builds that bridge, and so volunteerism to me is the same. It enables organizations that maybe can't do what they would love to do with the staffing resources that they have, but a volunteer just steps it up to another level and we all benefit when that happens.

So I've always believed that it's a responsibility that we have when we live in a community that we give back to it. So that's what motivates me. It allows me to learn new things, it challenges the status quo, and I get to meet some really fascinating people. From a communication perspective, it's the same. It provides a different perspective. It brings diversity of thought and experiences. It challenges my thinking. It challenges my biases when I have that opportunity to give back and to be in situations or be in environments that I wouldn't normally get to be related to my work. It just creates that culture of ongoing and continuous learning for me.

Philip De Souza: That's amazing. To you, Paris, during the pandemic, you bravely shared your journey on giving birth during the pandemic and the struggles that came with it, which made headlines on BBC, Toronto Life, and more. So what inspired you to share your personal story on this? AI guess from a communications lens, why do you think storytelling widely and sharing such experiences is so important?

Paris Semansky: I love this question. I love talking about this. I think when you're going through a difficult thing, a hard thing, a unprecedented thing, there's something about being able to connect with other people and have other people connect with that experience that really just makes you feel less alone. So that at the core of it was why I wrote pieces that I shared in Medium and talked to Toronto life and Canadian Press and really was open about that experience and that difficulty, because I actually found that provided a lot of catharsis for me, a lot of healing through what was in a lot of ways a pretty traumatic experience. It reminds me a bit of, we as an organization have actually asked Patricia to come and talk to our team about her work and St. work with patients and families and about what telling your own story, the impact telling your own story can have on your own healing.

I really think about it from that perspective. That I don't know that if I didn't have the, I'll frame it in the positive, having the opportunity to tell my story and have it connect with other people was a huge part of the healing for me. I think storytelling, I think we have to hold it really carefully. I think it's a gift when people want to share their story with us. I think it's absolutely important that we hold it with a lot of care and a lot of gentleness. I think, again, a whole other topic for a conversation would be Patricia and others and their work around how to do that storytelling in a different way that's less extractive and more creates meaning for somebody else as well.

Then I also think, I talked a little bit about this already, when I did my master's, my topic was about parents with young kids during the pandemic and their experiences of isolation and being online in particular. I think it's also, for me, part of a broader sense of thinking about what the impact of this major thing was on all of us. My own lived experience is being a parent with young kids, and I think it's profound. We've gone back to business as if nothing happened, which can make you feel a little collectively gaslit. So I think saying some of it out loud to say that thing happened. It was real. It was hard. It's not less hard because it's over. That's not how drama works. So yeah, so I think that's why for me, it was important to tell my own story and hope, if it has, have had the experience of it having connected with some other folks as well, which is the ultimate goal I think of any communications, is to connect with an audience that you want to be reaching.

Philip De Souza: Your point about, everything you said, it's totally resonates with me. I didn't go through what you went through, but I think our conversation today is definitely rooted in connection because we're sharing stories from our own perspective, our own lens, and that allows us to understand. Like I said, I can just hear in both of your voices how you're both grounded in empathy and I really appreciate that.

So to close off, because we can probably talk for five more hours, but I thought-

Paris Semansky: I know.

Philip De Souza: On a fun note, our lightning round. These are just short questions and you can answer them in one word or one sentence, whatever you feel like there's no limits. The first question is, where do you both draw your inspiration or motivation from?

Patricia Hoffer: For me, it's music and art of all forms.

Paris Semansky: Fiction, reading fiction.

Philip De Souza: What was your first job ever?

Patricia Hoffer: I was handing out food. I was one of those food sampler people in the grocery store.

Paris Semansky: I love that. Very popular

Philip De Souza: Paris?

Paris Semansky: I think, it wasn't really paid, but it was still a job. I think it was dropping literature for the 1998 election campaign.

Philip De Souza: Is there a brand or a person you admire for their comms work?

Patricia Hoffer: For me, it's the Obamas.

Philip De Souza: Yeah.

Patricia Hoffer: They never wavered from their brand, which was one of authenticity and accessibility and vulnerability and relatability.

Paris Semansky: I'm going to go with an area that's often maligned, but for me has been really important, is there's an influencer actually. So Sarah Nicole Landry, she's the Bird's Papaya and she has changed her brand and her position many, many, many times, but always at the core has been someone I found incredibly relatable and powerful to have out in the world and be connecting in the way she is.

Philip De Souza: Very cool. My last question, if you were stranded on a deserted island and you can only pick one famous person, dead or alive, to be with you, who would that person be?

Patricia Hoffer: So the caveat would be that he'd need to bring his guitar.

Philip De Souza: Okay.

Patricia Hoffer: Because music is important. It would be Prince.

Paris Semansky: Oh.

Philip De Souza: Oh, yes. That's a good one.

Patricia Hoffer: Not just for his music, but if you read about him, he was very philanthropic and very underground about his philanthropic support. So I think some fascinating conversations to be had with Prince.

Paris Semansky: So a desert island is a long time potentially, and I like stories. Honestly, Robert Munch, the children's author. His storytelling ability is unparalleled, but if you read him in interviews, my goodness, that man has been through extraordinary ups and downs in his life. He's been through substance use challenges, he's been through mental health challenges and he's talked about them in ways that I am just floored by. Yeah, I think if it had to be a long time, you get the ups, you get the downs, you get some kid stories, which are frankly usually the best stories. Yeah, I think I could hang out with Robert Munch and that'd be a pretty good time.

Patricia Hoffer: So we need to be on the same desert island with Robert Munch and Prince.

Philip De Souza: So you can swim to either one. Well, I want to thank you both so much for joining us today. I took so many notes. This literally was five master classes in one, and I just want to thank you both. Like I said to you earlier, to you both, I look to both of you for inspiration and motivation. I know I asked you both that question. For our listeners, the three of us happened to be at a conference together late last year, a healthcare comms conference, and there wasn't an individual who I didn't bump into after you both gave a talk who didn't say I need more of them. So I just wanted to let you both know that. I'm sure you've heard it. It's just having leaders such as yourselves in this space, we appreciate that. So I just want to let you know our team at HIROC, and I know everyone who I come across, but they really appreciate you both.

Patricia Hoffer: Oh, well, thank you.

Paris Semansky: Thank you. I'm a Leo, so I can never hear it enough. So I appreciated it. It really does mean a lot. Thank you.

Thank you for listening. You can hear more episodes of Healthcare Chang Makers on our website,, and on your favorite podcasting apps. If you like what you hear, please rate us or post a review. Healthcare Chang Makers is recorded by HIROC's Communications and Marketing team and produced by Podfly Productions. Follow us on Twitter @hirocgroup or email us at [email protected]. We'd love to hear from you.