‘Leadership communications is paramount, now more than ever’: PMI internal comms lead

The head of global internal communications at Philip Morris International on managing comms for a 77,000-strong workforce and keeping employees engaged throughout the pandemic.

In the last year and a half, employee engagement has come to the forefront as a vital cog in organisations as leaders scramble to adjust to new ways of working. At Philip Morris International (PMI), one of the biggest obstacles that leaders and managers faced was efficiently communicating with its global workforce and bringing everyone on the same page. 

Through an employee survey in 2020, the company recorded a 19 per cent YOY improvement in relevancy and 19 per cent YOY increase in clarity, while employee confidence in PMI’s transformation improved by 12 per cent. On top of that, 73 per cent of employees felt that PMI’s global senior leaders were demonstrating visible leadership through the programmes established by global internal comms. Eighty per cent of employees also reacted positively to content and programming relating to the transformation, senior executive communications, and PMI’s Covid response.

Bessie Kokalis-Pescio (pictured above), global head of internal communications for PMI, talks to PRWeek about how she communicated to the company’s 77,000-strong global workforce across 180 countries through this challenging period.

How did you manage the initial shift to a virtual environment?

Our first reflex was to make sure that employees were safe, and make sure we have a particular protocol. We initiated a special situations management, a multi-functional group that was convened under our head of operations. This group was formed to iron out what needed to be done. When did we need to communicate to employees? What did we need to let them know? So it really was about making that first contact, and making sure that employees felt reassured, and they knew where to go for information, and who to go to. 

This communications stream has been available since March 2020, it’s gone globally to all employees. And then there's a local version that goes to each of the different entities because rules and regulations are different in the pandemic. And we have different types of employees: we have office workers, we have the sales force who are in the field, we have factory workers who are working in a factory environment. So there were obviously a lot of considerations. And there's a lot of complexity there to understand what needed to be done. 

How did you balance communicating about the business vs the welfare and safety of employees?

At that beginning of 2020, we were in the process of rolling out a transformation campaign leadership videos to explain where our business was going in terms of smoke-free. And then Covid hit. So we said, okay, we need to pivot from this, because this is not what people need now. As internal communications professionals, we had to find the right balance between the business and the empathy, and the care that we needed to demonstrate for our employees. So we turned down the volume on one pillar of our communication, and we turned up the volume on another.

I’ll give you an example. We had planned later in the year [2020] to launch a new internal channel, Yammer, which was in the cards for Q2. And when COVID hit, we said, okay, well wait a second. It's a great way to connect people. So we launched it with the idea of bringing people together to demonstrate what they were doing for one another in their communities, to support their communities. And that created a tremendous amount of goodwill across the company, everyone across the company sharing how they were, how they were contributing. 

We also had an experiential programme. We were thinking of a good way to connect employees and make them feel special and we landed on music. We knew everybody loves music around the world. We thought why don't we have some type of show, an internal show that broadcasts our talent. We had musical talent from across the organisation, people who were singing, people who played instruments or had their own bands. It was so impressive and wonderful to see, from across the organisation from every continent. We asked people to submit their videos, we then curated those videos, and then got employees to vote the best ones and we awarded a prize to the best performance. There was this wonderful competitive feel about it, but it was also very collegial at the same time. It was a great thing, and very much appreciated with thousands of people tuning in live.

How did you navigate between messaging from internal comms, leadership, and HR at PMI? Was this an issue that came up during the pandemic? 

The way that our company is orchestrated is that the internal comms team is global and our customers are the different functions. Central functions, as well as the regions and the markets. So we basically work with them throughout the year to understand what their programmes are. What are the initiatives? How do we best communicate them? Who needs to be doing the communication? At what time? Should it be communicated from the head of people and culture? Should it be communicated from the head of inclusion and diversity? 

We partner with those teams in order to understand what message needs to go to whom, when and why, and what's the best way to get it out there. So it's a continuous collaboration, it's really a partnership. 

Has the role of leadership communications shifted during the pandemic?

Leadership communications is paramount, now more than ever. The level of reassurance of confidence that a leader can provide in a time of crisis is critical. What we've emphasised is the continued accessibility of our leaders through different forums, but also leaning into their different styles. Okay, so what's the style that works best for each leader? And what's the best way for them to communicate? It's not about one size fits all.

For example, when we work with the different functions, we work with them to understand which of our global programmes we can adapt for them in order to be more accessible. For example, we have leaders who do a regular webcast, or they have a regular email to the organisation. But they're not only speaking about their function or their area of expertise, we are also are getting them involved in key topics that are important to employees, whether it be our employee resource groups for women, or the LGBTQ+ community. It could also be on topics that are important to them, whether it be resilience, wellbeing, or just an opportunity to showcase another aspect of their personality. 

It's important that people see our leaders not only as leaders but also as people. We're seeing that that formula of integrating our leaders into other communications programmes beyond their specific remit is very powerful. 

What advice do you have for internal comms leaders in large organisations? 

Listen to your organisation. Try to understand at a deep level: What are their needs? What are their wants? Following that, what's the best way for the company to respond through policies, programmes, communications, leadership, accessibility, visibility, or whatever that may be.

I think that we need to continue to be agile, we need to continue to reinvent ourselves as internal communications professionals, and be able to expand our horizons. Here we are charting our path as any good skipper would do. You're always looking out to the horizon. But as things happen, you know that you need to change tact from time to time. I think keeping those two always in the right balance is going to be critical.

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