PR lessons from post-hurricane Puerto Rico


View of the old San Juan area from Fort El Morro (Castillo San Felipe del Morro) in Puerto Rico. With views of Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, a colonial-era cemetery .

On 20 September, 2017, Hurricane Maria brought destruction and despair to the island of Puerto Rico. Residents of the remote coastal town of Punta Santiago painted a sign on the pavement that read “S.O.S. Necesitamos right Aqua/Comida”, translated as “S.O.S. We need Water/Food”). This message made headlines in the United States and across the world, while negative media coverage of the island.

The media focused on stories relating to the slow response of the US government in providing aid to the island and its residents. Months after the hurricane, news that many parts of the island were still living without electricity dominated the media cycle. There was even controversy about the under reported number of deaths.

However, one organization has been determined to change how the media talks about Puerto Rico. When the one-year anniversary of the hurricane was approaching, Discover Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico’s tourism marketing organization formed 3 months before the hurricane, decided it wanted to paint a more positive picture of the post-hurricane situation on the island.

The motivation of Discover Puerto Rico was to support economic recovery by letting potential visitors know that the island was now open for business. Discover Puerto Rico worked alongside New York City-based public relations firm, Ketchum, to brainstorm this new approach to how Puerto Rico is depicted in the media.

“We knew that, historically, 80%-85% of disaster anniversary coverage is negative. We wanted to offset this a bit by shining a light on the recovery”, said Leah Chandler, Discover Puerto Rico’s Chief Marketing Officer.

Jean Paul Polo, a Puerto Rican native and Discover Puerto Rico’s Director of Multimedia Production, set out to Punta Santiago to find the sign that had been painted almost a year ago. Jean Paul met with members of the community who were shocked to learn that their message had gone viral. 

“I told them we are coming up on the one-year anniversary. We want to tell a message of resiliency. And this sign that you painted has come to symbolize the devastation that the Hurricane caused. Can we replace it with a new image? They got the idea right off the bat”, said Jean Paul. 

A new image was painted in the exact spot which said “Bienvenidos”, which means “Welcome”, and it also included the hashtag #CoverTheProgress. The “Cover The Progress” campaign was launched one month before the anniversary of Hurricane Maria. The campaign’s centerpiece was a two-minute video of the reinvention of the painting on the pavement.

The campaign was covered by all the major networks, including CNN, Fox News, USA Today and Travel Weekly. The cost of the campaign – around $12,0000.

The question now is how this will impact the tourism industry on the island. While the number of accomodation options and lodging registrations have been down, there is still hope that things will pick up. According to Carla Campos, Executive Director of Puerto Rico Tourism Company, “Demand is picking up and the outlook for the forthcoming winter season is very optimistic.”

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