How GFR Media is rebuilding its brand, community after Hurricane Maria

By Dawn McMullan


Dallas, Texas, United States


The damage Hurricane Maria did to Puerto Rico was international news when it hit in September 2017. U.S. President Trump helped continue the drama, so — more than ever before — Puerto Rico has been front and center in U.S. politics for the past 17 months.

I knew embarasssingly little about this U.S. territory before Hurricane Maria, the most catastrophic atmospheric event in the island’s history. So I was most interested to hear GFR Media CEO Juan Mario Álvarez explain the importance of communication in helping his company reinvent itself after the Category 5 hurricane destroyed so much of the island. Álvarez, who is a member of INMA’s Latin America Division board of directors, has been CEO of the news media company since April 2018.

GFR Media CEO Juan Mario Álvarez discusses the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on his company and community.
GFR Media CEO Juan Mario Álvarez discusses the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on his company and community.

INMA: What success within GFR Media are you most proud of at this moment? 

Álvarez: The turnaround of the business during the situation and everything we did to stabilise it. After the hurricane, we distributed free copies of El Nuevo Día, the island’s leading newspaper, for a month, and eliminated the paywall in the digital version for two months so that users could connect and learn about the entire reconstruction process after the crisis.

2018 was a year of rebuilding the business, repositioning our leading brands, El Nuevo Día and Primera Hora, and reaffirming our commitment to Puerto Rico and the importance of high-quality journalism. Today, we have managed to recover our digital traffic and even increase it by 13% versus traffic before Hurricane Maria. 

INMA: What did you learn in 2018 that will shape your leadership in 2019? 

Álvarez: Throughout the reconstruction process, I learned about the importance of being in constant communication with employees. Internal communication is as important as external communication and must be based on clarity, reality, honesty, and transparency. To deliver results, it’s essential that employees understand the business strategy, model, goals, and value proposition, and remain engaged. 

We also recognised that employees were going through a hurricane on a personal level. While they were giving their all to get the newspaper up and running, they were encountering serious personal challenges at home. Reassuring employees about our plans gave them a sense of stability. 

INMA: What is GFR Media’s biggest initiative for 2019?

To help Puerto Ricans keep up with the news of rebuilding after the hurricane, GFR distributed free print copies of El Nuevo Día for one month and eliminated the digital paywall for two months.
To help Puerto Ricans keep up with the news of rebuilding after the hurricane, GFR distributed free print copies of El Nuevo Día for one month and eliminated the digital paywall for two months.

Álvarez: Our most important initiative this year is to continue promoting a business model that has four pillars and is focused on audiences and keeping them connected through all our points of contact:

  1. Providing our users with varied, relevant, and premium content and high-quality journalism that keeps them engaged and connected, that helps us convert heavy readers into subscribers, and encourages repeat visits to both print and digital.
  2. Our content must be distributed digital first. Our strategy for responding to the changes in digital first is to meet the demand for breaking news with greater immediacy and offer the audience flexibility in consuming content wherever and however it wants.
  3. We must back our content with audience intelligence and strategy, provide readers with the content they want to read, and use analytics tools to improve our knowledge of audiences and their interaction with content. This year, The American Press Institute chose GFR Media as one of 10 companies to receive to receive from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation the grant for the use of Metrics for News, a customised tool for newspapers that provides metrics for content strategies, newsrooms, create blended metrics, grow audiences and track key segments and support subscription strategie.
  4. We produce and distribute more than 1.7 million copies of our newspapers weekly. This year we will invest in production efforts that improve the printing quality of our presses. 

Internal talent, high-quality service, and marketing that highlights the value of brands and content support these four pillars and help us keep the audience engaged while attracting new users and readers. As we get to know our audience better and obtain insights through data, we seek to monetise it both in terms of new subscribers and advertising revenue. 

INMA: What do you see as the big opportunities in 2019 and how are you taking advantage of them? 

Álvarez: One of our most significant opportunities is diversifying our income, moving away from print and display ads and toward expanding our ecosystem with additional billboards, experiential marketing, and strategic alliances with broadcasting. These are ways to improve and expand reach and connectivity with our audience to leverage our multi-year relationships with clients and advertising agencies, and ensure we continue to maximise our offerings according to the audiences.

INMA: What keeps you up at night?

Álvarez: The continuous transformation of the business to a digital world and the monetisation challenges of this situation that makes it essential to connect with the audience and to expand the ecosystem based on content and find additional ways to distribute it. I’m also thinking constantly about the transformation of the business and how we can stay relevant in the lives of Puerto Ricans, and help them make better, informed decisions to improve their daily lives.

About Dawn McMullan

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