Bessie Kokalis, of Philip Morris, on internal comms at one of the world's largest companies

Philip Morris' director of internal comms, Bessie Kokalis, a panel speaker at the PRWeek Strategic Internal Communications Conference in November, talks about her untraditional career path and what she has learned in her ten years at PMI.

Bessie Kokalis, director of internal comms at Philip Morris International
Bessie Kokalis, director of internal comms at Philip Morris International

Bessie Kokalis does not fit the typical profile one thinks of when Philip Morris and big tobacco come to mind and, with a talent for languages, her career could have taken a very different path.

She says: "I would not have predicted that when I left university with a bachelor’s degree in the humanities, French literature and political science, I would end up working for one of the largest and most-recognised multinationals like Philip Morris International."

Having grown up in Boston with Greek-American parents, Kokalis is appreciative as she discusses the places her career has taken her.

She says: "I’ve always been stimulated by challenging assignments, and every step along the way I’ve been very lucky to find them."

After graduating from Clark University in 1993, Kokalis worked for Lionbridge Technologies. Beginning as a translator and linguist, Kokalis eventually became the director of business development before attending Babson College for her MBA. After that, she moved into consulting for Booz Allen Hamilton.

Looking back on the beginning of her career, Kokalis appreciates the significance of language in internal comms.

She says: "What I learned then was how not only to translate the words on the page but, equally importantly, to translate their meaning and to be able to communicate complex concepts simply."

After two years in healthcare consulting, Kokalis made a dramatic change and moved to PMI in 2005. Since then, she has held several positions, including director R&D comms and director commercial approach and planning.

Kokalis feels that she knows PMI inside out. She adds: "Today, I feel that I understand how our organisation works, what drives it, how our teams contribute and what motivates them, and how to address them in a language that’s simple, transparent and credible. I feel that this understanding is helpful for our global internal communications initiatives."

One of Kokalis’ biggest tasks from a comms perspective is "bridging the world of today and the world of tomorrow".

Kokalis is referring to the iconic brands of PMI and the new direction PMI is heading in, with potentially reduced-risk products.

She says: "I hope we can look back in 10 years and say, we made a difference, and that we helped to move the organisation through a very important transition."

Her work in R&D and product development at PMI has provided Kokalis with a great sense of satisfaction.

Referring to PMI’s new technology with smokeless cigarettes, she says: "There is nothing I am more proud of than to see that one of the products that was once in our R&D pipeline is now in the hands of adult smokers in Japan, Switzerland and Italy."

This global factor is important when Kokalis speaks about internal comms at PMI, compared with other big multinationals.

On the surface, PMI is not that different but, Kokalis says: "What makes us unique is reaching a global audience that has both an online, office-based employee and significant offline, factory-based employee component. We want to make sure everyone is ‘connected’ regardless of where they be may be in the organisation."

At PMI, Kokalis explains that success has been most recently measured around 'engagement' and 'activation'.

She explains: "That is not only how our employees consume internal content, but the steps they take after communication to get involved, to participate."

Currently, Kokalis and her team are in the process of rolling out a new information workplace platform, a campaign aimed at increasing communication among the PMI global community.

Kokalis will be discussing the secrets of measurement at next month’s conference. For Kokalis, this means answering the question: how does a particular communications initiative or campaign answer the business problem or opportunity at hand?

PRWeek readers can save £50 off the price of the Strategic Internal Communications Conference by registering on the website and entering the promotion code PRW2186.

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