GFR Media is a family-owned business in transition — not only because its home was hit by a devestating hurricane two years ago. I heard quite a bit about the news brand and the effect Hurricane María had on it in New York at the INMA World Congress of News Media. It left me wanting to know more.

María Eugenia Ferré Rangel, chairwoman of the board at Guaynabo, Puerto Rico-based communications company, is a leader who keeps an eye on the past while looking ahead to the digital future. Ferré Rangel, who joined the INMA board in June, began her media career with GFR Media in 1991 in her family’s newspaper advertising department, working her way through different facets of the business. Today, she heads its media group.

The story of its holding company began in 1918 with their ancestors, who migrated from Cuba to Puerto Rico. Over time, the company evolved from the iron industry to cement. Now, it’s a multi-national strategic investment holding with interests in real estate, media, customer engagement, and social innovation.

Grupo Ferré Rangel is “committed to bringing results and producing value where it really matters: our businesses, our families, and our communities.”

Its charter for strengthening communities and supporting the collective good is realised both in its philanthropies, with efforts concentrated in the areas of human and social development, civism, arts, and culture and education.

It’s media arm (GFR Media) is shifting from a traditional emphasis on journalism to becoming an audience-focused, content-driven digital strategies brand with a broader reach. It owns two newspapers: El Nuevo Día is the largest newspaper in Puerto Rico and newspaper of record. It is the vehicle where the island’s historic milestones are documented and is no stranger to taking an oppositional stance that challenges government actions and policies. Primera Hora is a more community-oriented newspaper, focusing on human interest stories.

In a recent interview, Ferré Rangel shared how the company got back on its feet following catetory five Hurricane Maria in 2017. It was not only her own family’s commitment to the business, she said, but the determination and commitment of the people who work at GFR Media (more here on that) to bringing the news to the Puerto Rican public.

We talked to Ferré Rangel recently about how the hurricane affected the news brand and what its future holds.

INMA: What success within your company are you most proud of at this moment?

Ferré Rangel: I know it has been said before, but the speed with which we got back on our feet right after Hurricane María showed the determination of our employees and the commitment of our family to the business.

Less than 24 hours after the passing of María — and with great access difficulties — many of our content, production, and distribution people nonetheless showed up to make sure that the newspaper reached as many people as possible.

In the three months after Hurricane María, GFR Media lost US$1 million. Still, it provided needed content for its audiences, increasing its readership score 10% throughout the next year.
In the three months after Hurricane María, GFR Media lost US$1 million. Still, it provided needed content for its audiences, increasing its readership score 10% throughout the next year.

Less than two months after the hurricane, we brought our distribution to the levels we had prior to María. As we built up our distribution during that period, we didn’t charge for the newspaper.

This whole process showed the commitment that all of our employees have to the responsibility of providing relevant, credible, and timely information our people. In a broader perspective, it also gave us all [the momentum] to go beyond pre-existing conditions and seek new opportunities to promote innovation through a hands-on approach — not only into the business transformation but also becoming part of the island’s rebirth.

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

Ferré Rangel: Continue our evolution to project ourselves not as a media but as a communications company, focusing on an audience-centric business model.

We’re actively seeking to expand our ecosystem and looking for new ways to connect with the audience beyond our print and digital platforms. We intend to do it by continuing to expand our out-of-home and experiential marketing/events businesses.

The cross-platform promotion is key to achieving greater frequency and reach. Investing in intelligence, data platforms, and personnel is essential to be effective in connecting with the audience. We must know how, when, and where they prefer to connect with us through our ecosystem. Only then we will be capable of serving our audience well.  

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

Ferré Rangel: We see opportunities in the following areas:

Experiential marketing and events: As a communications company, we are capable of amplifying the audience experience for our clients and audience:

  • We can document the event or the experiential marketing experience in different forms (audio, visual, print, etc.) and distribute it through our print and digital platforms and OOH.
  • We can achieve a one-stop solution that other event producers can’t do on their own.
  • We can create stories from events and experiential marketing solutions. Good story telling has always been an effective way to achieve audience engagement.

Out-of-home: This is the only platform among traditional media outlets that is experiencing growth. Digital has come to make this platform more dynamic and attractive for advertisers. Mixing the architectural element with the digital technology makes it an effective communication outlet in the inner cities, parks, etc. 

INMA: What did you learn in 2018 that is guiding your leadership in 2019?

Ferré Rangel: Stay focused on what your core business is. In our case, that is generating top-quality content that is relevant to the daily life of our audience. Technology, data, and audience intelligence are enablers in our job of generating content.

In the process, we are looking for new ways to expand our reach and frequency to connect with the audience. It is simple: Create the content and make sure you have the means to get that content out there in the different forms and shapes the audience prefers.

INMA: What keeps you up at night?

Ferré Rangel: I know we’re heading toward becoming a digital company. In fact, we are probably closer than we think. So how can we balance the technological challenges of becoming a digital company with maintaining the heart of our content-driven operation?

It requires tremendous amounts of capital to do a serious and responsible job in that endeavour. In a world in which the “frenemies” (Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc.) are taking 80 cents or more of every digital advertising dollar, we must have a content revenue model strong enough to pay for the people and the technology required to generate top-quality content. Getting people to pay for content is a tremendous challenge for regional publications like ours, particularly in a market where free digital content is the norm.

Although we have these challenges, we’re privileged to have a committed team focused on maintaining an open-minded attitude and continuously seeking to learn and improve. It’s all about pro-activity, flexibility, resiliency, and optimisation — and opening doors for new ways to achieve our business objectives in a media landscape that is in constant evolution.