Being the beat writer for the Baltimore Orioles and the Baltimore Ravens for the now-defunct Baltimore Examiner newspaper was a pretty big deal for former sportswriter Matt Palmer.
This week, the Catonsville resident's job as the social media coordinator for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops goes light years beyond professional sports coverage.
Whereas once Palmer described the athletic achievements of elite world-class athletes, his latest gig — helping to share behind-the-scenes images of Pope Francis' visit to the United States with nearly 300,000 combined friends and followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — finds him chronicling the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.
To be sure, the job comes with high expectations, both from his employers and pressure the 37-year-old father of two puts on himself.
"I'd be lying if I didn't say I'm a little nervous," said Palmer, whose career in journalism began by covering high school sports for the Howard County Times and the Columbia Flier community newspapers. "I used to long days from my time covering the Ravens. After a Monday night game, I wouldn't get home until 1 a.m. sometimes. Now it's different. I'm up at 5 a.m. and the days are still long. It's a constant challenge, but a good one."
His boss, USCCB media relations director Don Clemmer, expressed confidence in Palmer's ability to deliver when the stakes are high.
"Matt is a key member of our team," Clemmer said. "With his journalistic background and his instincts for engaging the dynamics of a community, he serves very well as the person behind the social media channels of the USCCB. With the papal visit, he's taking on an unprecedented endeavor: keeping up on a global conversation over a six-day period and helping the message of Pope Francis be heard."
Executing the job correctly will take a step-by-step process, with no corners cut and no stone left unturned.
"We have to figure out what is the right way to share his every movement," Palmer said. "It's a big deal for all Catholics and it's a big deal for me.
"In a lot of ways, it establishes where my career is headed," he said. "Every move he makes will be streamed on the USCCB.org website in real time. And we'll put video highlights and photos on social media, too, exclusive behind-the-scenes images for our followers."
Since joining the USCCB and making the commute from Catonsville to northeast Washington, D.C. two years ago, Palmer has elevated the organization's presence on social media from moderate to major.
For instance, he says that the organization now boasts more than 260,000 followers on its English and Spanish-language Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.
"We just recently started Instagram," Palmer added about the photo-sharing service that enables its users to share images on a variety of social networking platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Flickr. "We want to further tap into the mobile culture. With the papal visit, we anticipate those numbers will continue to rise. The Pope Francis effect is very real on social media. It's up to us to bring his message of mercy to those interested."
He burnished his social media skills while working for the Catholic Review for five years before heading to Washington.
The decision to leave the job was not taken lightly, although taking the position was a slam-dunk.
"I couldn't pass up this chance," said Palmer, who lives with his wife, Cassandra, and toddlers, Liam and Anna Leigh. "The offer was too good."
He manages all the social media platforms for the organization.
"Catholics have embraced social media in a big way," he said. "And we share stories and news items about the bishops. We give them a public face."
The rise in numbers of social media users by Catholics tells a story about younger people and their faith, Palmer said.
"It's a direct contradiction to those who say Catholic youth is not involved," Palmer said. "They are just as involved as other people, and they are participating by sharing and commenting about their faith."
If anything, they may be following Pope Francis' lead.
The pontiff Tweets regularly, as often as four or five times per week.
"What's great is that his Tweets are simple and inspirational," Palmer said. "They set the tone for my day. And he sets the bar high. It's wonderful to wake up in the morning and receive his messages. It makes me think, 'how can I match his message? This is where Francis is, but am I doing enough? How can I be better?'"
Because nearly two million people are expected to travel from around the country and throughout the world to take part in Pope Francis' first visit to the United States, the AAA Mid-Atlantic is recommending that travelers who plan to attend Papal visit events — or need to travel in or around the affected cities — should plan ahead.
"The Papal visit marks a historic event that will bring travelers from around the country and throughout the world to the Mid-Atlantic region," said Ragina Cooper Averella, manager of Public and Government Affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic, in a press release.
"It holds the potential for significant impacts on transportation networks. Travelers coming to Papal events, as well as those who live and work in the surrounding areas, must plan, prepare and be patient during the Papal visit.
"This is not the time to 'just wing it.' It is a time to plan ahead and prepare accordingly, similar to planning ahead of a snow storm."