“We Had Gone Back 20 Years.” The Heads of Puerto Rico’s Largest Media Company on Life After Hurricane Maria

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When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September 2017, it became one of the deadliest storms ever to hit the island. Nearly 3,000 people were killed and parts of the island are still recovering, lacking access to power and clean water more than a year later.

For one of Puerto Rico’s largest companies, Grupo Ferré Rangel, the impact has been enormous. The family-owned business runs Puerto Rico’s largest media company&#8212 (GFR Media) as well as other companies focused on customer engagement (LinkActive) and real estate (Kingbird). Company President Maria Luisa Ferré Rangel and Chief Creative Officer Loren Ferré Rangel recently sat down with HBR to discuss how GFR has changed since Maria struck.

“After Hurricane María,” said María Luisa, “Puerto Rico will never be the same. Our memories are grounded in the fact that we went to bed with one reality, one country or one island; 24 hours later we woke up in a different place.” An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.

HBR: As publishers and editors, you had to cover the disaster while your employees — and your businesses, by extension — faced extraordinary obstacles. How did you approach those first days and weeks?

María Luisa: Puerto Rico was completely devastated, and all of our businesses were impacted, too. Inside the newsroom, we had families living in the cafeteria, conference rooms, training centers etc.; there were 200 people who lived in our newsroom for weeks. We had to put in a daycare center, a catering center, provide cash because there was no way for people to take money out of the bank, provide cars for people, especially reporters, to get around. We worried all the time about having enough fuel for the generators. And that was just for our employees. When it came to the business, we had gone back 20 years and distributed the paper as a print product. The whole island was isolated from the world.

It was a race to transform ourselves. We were responsible for informing and connecting everyone in a very tricky environment. From the first moment, because our business is connecting people, we had to pick ourselves up and do our job. But the hurricane forced us to see ourselves in a different way. Our call centers became the FEMA call centers. We were supplying electricity and water to our properties that are part of our real estate business, and so we began to rent out small spaces to people who needed to get back to work but had no place to go. We gave space to NGOs so they could also be first responders in the emergency. We started to think about what other services we could provide, and this is when we began to refocus our business.

What do you mean, refocus?

María Luisa: The hurricane forced us to stretch our thinking, challenging our perception of what we believe we could do — what we are capable of achieving in times of crisis. Crisis brings opportunities to explore uncharted territories. We’re now looking into developing other businesses and strengthening our presence in other industries. For example, now with our call center experience, we are competing for the call centers for the U.S. and Caribbean. We are evaluating coworking space opportunities. We’re looking at affordable housing with a group that can build quickly with new technology that is hurricane proof and can prove self-sufficient after an emergency with integrated solar panels and battery packs. We’re investing in hurricane proof solar panels that are applicable to various surfaces. In addition, we are evaluating investing in small startups that are offering solutions to facilitate living.

These opportunities sprouted from the crisis. The ecosystem changed, Puerto Rico changed. We needed to adjust our plan to give room and seize the opportunities that had risen within housing, energy, and services.

What made you ready for these opportunities?

Loren: No one was really ready for the outcome post-María. However, having to navigate the landscape and having to get our businesses back in track, gave us the capacity to see the needs and thus the opportunities that were evident after the hurricane. We identified jobs to be done. The hurricane forced us to see ourselves in a different way.

María Luisa: Our businesses were able to operate immediately after Maria because we planned for redundancy — generators, diesel, tech infrastructure. For example, we had three internet suppliers and although connection was nonexistent internally, we were able to transmit and keep our coverage on our websites for those outside of Puerto Rico. We were highly focused on covering the story of Puerto Rico and helping the world understand what was going on here. The printed newspaper was the only source of information available at that moment, and we understood the importance of people having information that could save their lives, that is why we decided to [distribute] the paper for free.

The hurricane had a huge financial impact, especially for the media company. We had no advertising because most of our advertisers were closed, their agencies without power. The reality of running a continuous operation, the extra expenses of diesel, gasoline, food, and then we had the cost of taking care of our employees and their families, without the revenues amounted to a $14 million loss, which we were counting on our business interruption insurance policy to cover, but at this moment we haven’t received any payment from this part of the insurance. As a family, we had to put up the money to keep the media company running for months until slowly the advertising dollars started to come back. The reality of having an operation that was debt free became very real, because if in addition to the $14 million loss, we needed to pay our interest on loans/debt, it would have made it impossible for us to continue operations.

Soon after the hurricane, you had to make cuts at the media company. Were those related to the losses? Or a desire to invest in other newer parts of the business — the solar, the housing, the call centers, etc?

María Luisa: This was one of the most difficult decisions in our lives. We had great challenges in front of us, and we needed to make changes throughout the company, in order to continue our mission. In terms of the media company, we needed to revise processes and look for efficiencies. Our industry has been in the middle of a great transformation and the impact of the hurricane made it much worse, that is why it was so difficult to make the decisions, but also necessary to sustain the business through a very very difficult time. On the human side, we knew that some of these decisions were dramatic, but at the end we had to ensure the sustainability of the business in the middle of the crisis.

Do you feel that the company has stabilized? How long has it taken to restore a sense of normalcy?

María Luisa: It was really chaotic for a while because you had to survive every day. We didn’t know if we had enough diesel to operate. Most of us were not living at home. When you drove around Puerto Rico, there were no traffic signals, no policemen. And we had a mandatory curfew. We couldn’t be out in the street after 5 p.m. This lasted about a month.

The moment we started feeling as though we had routines, we felt the chaos subside. Even if it was just being at work and picking up trash in your office. Then, when the power started to come back, we started to feel a lot more secure. Then the water came back, and we started to feel more in control. This was four months after the hurricane.

None of our businesses stopped running, but the moment we were able to be fully operational was a big deal. That doesn’t mean we didn’t have issues. We were losing money. That’s when we realized we had to create a new strategy. That we didn’t have time. That we had to move very fast.

It sounds like even though the chaos was subsiding, there was a lot that was still unsettled for a lot of people. How do you introduce a new strategy when employees are already stressed? Was it even a good idea to introduce a new strategy at this time?

María Luisa: Our focus was on making sure our employees were safe and on their way to full recovery. But we quickly started pulling people together in new ways and working in teams and across silos. The teams knew the company was stable but under threat. You can imagine my thoughts of, “How do you tell them that it’s going to be ok? How do you motivate them?” In our regular meetings with all the teams, and in every conference room, we pasted a Winston Churchill quote: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” We also pasted a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr: “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” We wanted people to know that the important thing for us was to keep moving forward and celebrate moving forward. That mentality has really helped us.

Beyond shifting in strategy, how did Maria change your business? What are some of the lessons that you learned?

María Luisa: We learned about our emergency operations. We were relying so much on technology that we forgot basics like having a list of where employees live, on paper. The computers didn’t work. We couldn’t send emails. Now we have a roster. We have added regular land lines as backup in communication and now we are working on mapping out where our employees live and how to physically reach them in case of an emergency, also creating emergency centers in our distribution buildings and call centers buildings.

And, in the media company, we were so into covering the story, in surviving the moment, that we might have lost sight that our own people were suffering. We look outside a lot — we covered the loss of Puerto Rico, but maybe we didn’t look inside enough. In hindsight, while we were working through the crisis, focused on getting the information out, we should have also had a group of our own people looking to the needs of our staff and having the space and time to process what has happened to them on individual levels too… counseling, for example. Now we’re creating a wellness program to help people deal with the trauma everybody had. And that nourishing part is a lesson to be learned.

You’ve just marked the 100th anniversary of GFR. And the one-year anniversary of Maria. What are you thinking about most? What are you hopeful about? What are you worried about?

We are thinking about the future. The social inequalities unveiled by this disaster must be addressed. How do we become resilient and how do we keep transforming — until every Puerto Rican family has a secure roof over their heads, functioning and affordable utilities, access to quality education and health services, jobs, safety, and food on their table? This is work that continues until our businesses and our economy are back on track and the social fiber of our society is regenerated and healed.

Our family has been in Puerto Rico for over a century, and we are planning to be around for many, many more years to come. We have been present and committed to Puerto Rico during times of prosperity, but most importantly, during times of adversity. Adversity has a way of reminding us how strong we all can be.

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Have you ever offered up an idea in a meeting and been ignored — but then, 10 minutes later, a man repeated the idea and everyone called it brilliant? Or have you ever worked hard on a team project and been left off the thank-you email?

If we aren’t thoughtful about how we present our ideas at work, we risk not being heard or, worse, missing out on the credit we’re due. Research shows that women get less credit when we work in groups with men. So, it’s important for us to be strategic with our suggestions and insights.

We talk with two experts on workplace dynamics and difficult conversations. First, Amy Jen Su covers how to artfully share your contributions. Next, Amy Gallo tells us how to call out credit stealers.

Guests:

Amy Jen Su is a managing partner and a cofounder of Paravis Partners, an executive coaching and leadership development firm.

Amy Gallo is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review. She’s the author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict.

Resources:

● “Research: Men Get Credit for Voicing Ideas, but Not Problems. Women Don’t Get Credit for Either,” by Sean Martin

● “Proof That Women Get Less Credit for Teamwork,” by Nicole Torres

● “Research: Junior Female Scientists Aren’t Getting the Credit They Deserve,” by Marc J. Lerchenmueller and Olav Sorenson

● “How to Respond When Someone Takes Credit for Your Work,” by Amy Gallo

Fill out our survey about workplace experiences.

Email us here: womenatwork@hbr.org

Our theme music is Matt Hill’s “City In Motion,” provided by Audio Network.

MIT Sloan Management Review

We are in the midst of a public conversation about whether social media echo chambers facilitate the spreading of fake news or prevent constructive dialogue on public issues. In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said that he was experimenting with features to reduce echo chambers on Twitter by inserting content with alternative viewpoints into people’s feeds. In response, an op-ed in The New York Times predicted that this idea would backfire, citing recent research showing that exposing people to alternate viewpoints only makes them more partisan. The problem with this otherwise important debate is that it assumes that Twitter users exist in echo chambers in the first place. They don’t.

We had the opportunity to study data from Twitter over a period of 12 days to evaluate how users share news across the entire network. (See “Related Research.”) We found localized evidence of polarization, but no widespread evidence of echo chambers. (With polarization, people are aware of the “other side” and in conflict with it; in echo chambers, people are ignorant of other opinions because they are not exposed to them.) Specifically, the most active and highly followed 1% of users, whom we call core users, were as polarized as past research and conventional wisdom predicted, posting more partisan content than what they read. However, the vast majority of active users tended to be less polarized, posting more politically moderate content than what they read, on average. Our data also shows that typical Twitter users received news articles from across the political spectrum and core users followed an even more politically diverse group of Twitter accounts, so neither group lacked exposure to alternate views.

In addition to providing important context for current debates, our findings suggest new ways of thinking about engagement on social media.

Related Research J. Shore, J. Baek, and C. Dellarocas, “Network Structure and Patterns of Information Diversity on Twitter,” MIS Quarterly 42, no. 3 (September 2018): 849-872.

Understanding Twitter User Behavior

Typical Twitter users — the diverse, quiet, and, on average, moderating majority — turn to the social platform for a variety of personal and professional reasons. They follow friends, family, and people whose opinions and content they find interesting. They post original ideas, but they also like and retweet posts of others. The people they follow do not belong to a single community, so most users are exposed to a range of perspectives, whether they were seeking them or not. Interestingly, however, the articles that typical users choose to post or retweet are even more centrist than what they are exposed to. (See “Range of Political Slant on Twitter.”) For example, a strongly left-leaning user might be exposed to content written for a clearly partisan audience, but post content written for a more centrist (if still somewhat left-leaning) audience. A possible explanation for such behavior is that because a typical user’s followers do not belong to a single community, most users refrain from posting content that some of their followers might object to.

Range of Political Slant on Twitter

Patterns of incoming and outgoing slant are somewhat different for two types of users. Ordinary left-leaning users share a more moderate mix of news stories than they receive in their own timeline. Left-leaning users in the network core (those who are highly visible and vocal) share a more partisan mix of news stories than they receive in their own timeline.

Box Plot depicting the relationship between range or political slant it tweets received and sent by different type of users

Core users in our study — the very visible vocal minority — include politicians, commentators, and other individuals and organizations whose primary interests revolve around politics and the news. These users exhibit a markedly different pattern of behavior. Although core users follow an even more politically diverse group of Twitter accounts than typical users, they tend to post less diverse and more partisan content than what they are exposed to. Right-leaning commentators, thus, tend to post and retweet content from mostly right-leaning sources (the same pattern is seen for left-leaning commentators). Such behavior constitutes a form of polarization: reading across the political spectrum but posting only content aligned with one’s own side.

So communication patterns look very different when one examines what is read (that is, tweets from people whom users follow) instead of what is said (that is, users’ own tweets and retweets). This relationship depends on where you are in the network: Core accounts tend to position themselves as more one-sided or partisan than what they are exposed to, while the typical account positions itself as more moderate.

Our conclusions are based on analyses of two sets of data. Our main, nearly complete cross-sectional data comes from Twitter’s application programming interface (API), collected during 12 days in 2009. Because of the possibility that 2009 data would not reflect a post-2016 reality on Twitter, we repeated the analysis with sampled data from early 2017 and found consistent results. We compared the political slant of the tweets posted by a given user with the political slant of the tweets posted by the accounts he or she follows. We tracked accounts only by user ID rather than name or handle and discarded message contents except for the URLs of news items being shared.

What This Means for Social Media Strategy

Our study focuses on understanding how information is shared on Twitter, but that has practical implications for how executives, marketers, and their organizations address Twitter in their social media strategies.

1. Typical users may not share distinctive marketing content. If a brand’s user base existed in echo chambers, then a strategy of targeting the right users with distinctive marketing content could help make a campaign go viral. This is because in echo chambers, targeted users’ followers tend to have the same interests.

What we found, however, is that the majority of Twitter users follow diverse sources of information and have diverse followers. Even if they are privately interested in a brand’s products, they might realize that some of their followers would find it boring, off-putting, or even controversial to share distinctive, targeted content. People may even refrain from liking especially narrowly targeted content because Twitter now displays likes to followers along with active posts or shares. Bottom line: If your content is distinctive, interested users may enjoy it, but they may not show their interest publicly through posts or retweets.

2. Look at what people read, not just what they say. The flip side of this is that Twitter users’ timelines are filled with less mainstream content than what they post and share. So if you want to identify potential customers on the basis of their activity, you may be better off looking at what they read than at what they say. Rather than profiling Twitter users by the hashtags they post or using machine learning to conduct sentiment analysis on their own tweets, it may be more illuminating to perform the same analyses on the tweets posted by the accounts they follow — especially for users who aren’t influencers themselves.

3. Polarized users are rare. Our findings suggest that the prevailing perception of Twitter as a polarized environment may be due to the outsize prominence of a tiny minority of accounts. The extreme visibility of core users might make Twitter seem like an unpredictable and explosive environment, but it is important to remember that these influencers are not typical. Does that mean that it is risk-free to engage on Twitter? No. Polarized influencers have a huge reach, offering opportunities for brands that take a stand on one side of an issue (as in Nike’s recent advertising campaign with Colin Kaepernick). But Twitter’s hundreds of millions of active users are diverse; on average, their outward behavior is just the opposite of the popular narrative of polarization.

Privacy and Engagement

When thinking about user behavior, we should also consider how people interact and share in other contexts. For instance, recent research shows that open office plans can backfire and cause people to interact less than they do in more traditional work spaces with private cubicles or offices. A similar dynamic may occur on Twitter: If users know that any engagement with distinctive content will be broadcast to their followers, they may choose not to engage despite having a real interest. As a result, features engineered to promote viral spreading (such as making what users like and follow visible to their friends and followers) might actually undermine that goal.

Offering private ways to interact with content might elicit more active engagement. Facebook’s private groups and Twitter’s recently introduced bookmark function (said to be a response to user desire to save content without publicly liking it) are examples of this principle; ephemeral content, used on Snapchat and Instagram Stories, has a related appeal.

It is possible to imagine a wide range of additional features on conventional social media (like the option of liking something anonymously). Social media provides fascinating sources of diverse content to engage with, but not everyone wants every engagement to be part of their public persona.

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