Rob DeFrancesco’s silver Ford Focus is one of the first cars to pull into the downtown Diocesan Pastoral Center underground parking garage. On many nights, it’s one of the last cars to leave.
It’s no mystery why DeFrancesco, 36, was chosen by members of the Catholic Press Association to be their president. In the 13 years he’s been a leader at The Catholic Sun, one of the top-five largest circulated diocesan newspapers in the United States, the publication has won numerous awards.
Still, DeFrancesco’s election reflects something more than a consistent quality print product. He led the newspaper, and now the entire Communications Office, to embrace what is often called “new media.”
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube — The Catholic Sun was one of the first diocesan publications to embrace what was then known as Web 2.0. The newspaper started promoting content on Twitter shortly after Twitter existed.
“Rob DeFrancesco has been a real leader in using new media and social media to reach Catholics,” said Chris Gunty, associate publisher of The Catholic Review, the newspaper serving the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and a past president of the Catholic Press Association. “He’s young, he’s talented, he has great ideas and he has no qualms about sharing his time and ideas with his colleagues in the Catholic press.”
DeFrancesco checks email and Twitter on his iPhone shortly before falling asleep at night and checks it again as soon as “light comes through my window.” He’s more effective when he’s “plugged in.”
“How can we use these tools to reach out to an ever-growing number of people that are glued to their iPhones and computer screens? It’s about reaching people where they are,” he said.
“We’ve seen an explosion in various ways for digital media to reach the faithful. It meets a need — there’s a huge number of people out there who feel they aren’t receiving their spiritual nourishment through traditional means,” DeFrancesco said. “We see that trend increasing.”
As an example, he noted the papal conclaves that elected Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. In both cases, crowds filled St. Peter’s Square, only this year, thousands had a mobile device in their hands.
“Everyone is a reporter in some sense — sharing that news with a friend around the world the moment it happens,” DeFrancesco said. The downside to this kind of connectivity, he said, is that many present at these unforgettable events do so through the barrier of their smart phone screen.
DeFrancesco began serving on the CPA Board of Directors in 2009, when he became the Western Region representative and was elected board secretary. In 2011, members of the Catholic Press Association chose him as their vice president. His presidency is a two-year term.
“It is clear that he loves what he does and gives his all,” said Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda, vice president of the Catholic Press Association. The younger generation of journalists, bloggers and social media experts inspire much hope, she said. “Our new president is the perfect example of this.”
Gunty said Catholic publications, like secular dailies, are at a crossroads and are constantly finding new ways to reach their readers. Getting the Catholic message out there is crucial.
“Catholic communicators must approach what we do as a vocation,” DeFrancesco said. “It’s by God’s grace that we do what we do. It’s a gift. We’re here to provide information to our Catholic readers and build up God’s kingdom.”
As president of the Catholic Press Association, DeFrancesco will work to build up educational opportunities for members and provide a comprehensive marketing plan to reach out to new members and Church leadership. He also wants to help members assert themselves in the digital landscape.
“His desire to concentrate on branding and membership, combined with his fluency in social media usage will help position the CPA as an organization with value to all Catholic communicators,” according to Tim Walter, executive director of the Catholic Press Association.
“It’s about being at the forefront of technology, not behind,” DeFrancesco said, though he also stressed the value of print.
“We know a large number of our Catholics prefer the print product,” DeFrancesco said. “It isn’t an either/or, but a both/and. We need to be everywhere.”