BALTIMORE - The woman had just bought a new car at the Mile One dealership, but she was sad to see her old one go. So she let a dealership staffer take a picture of her with both - and Mile One connected her with the buyer of her old car online.
"They became friends on Facebook," said Nicole Hayes, e-commerce director for the Mile One Automotive Group, based in Pikesville, Md.
Hayes says that such interactions, which she sees as helping to foster a community around the Mile One brand, have convinced her that the company needs to double down on social media. Mile One is now looking to hire a full-time social media pro.
Just a few years ago, companies considered Twitter and Facebook only as afterthoughts, leaving their online corporate identities to be managed by college interns or office tech geeks.
Now, companies and nonprofits across the Web are paying closer attention to their social media presence, and defining roles and tasks for their employees. Worried about public relations gaffes and embarrassing tweets, many are crafting social media policies for their employees.
Not everyone has signed on. Managers who believe in using social media for business often have to wage internal campaigns to convince higher-ups and staff of its value. In such cases, software such as HootSuite and SocialToaster can be used to measure the impact of a company's social media campaigns - key to persuading top executives of their worth.
Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. designated a full-time director of social media and Web engagement last year. And it recently redesigned its website to make it easier for customers to connect with the company on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn and Flickr.
"This is an enabler for us," said Rob Gould, BGE's chief communications officer. "This is something that can add to the customer experience, and if we don't do it, we risk customer angst for not being in this space."
Shortly after the utility dedicated itself to monitoring social media and other websites last year, public relations staffers picked up complaints from a blogger that a utility crew had left a large spool of cable in a neighborhood worksite.
BGE responded to the blogger and tracked down the eyesore.
"Within a day, that spool was removed," Gould said. "In doing so, we changed the dynamic of the conversation [and] the opinion of the customer."
Social media is now a full-fledged function in BGE's communications department, Gould said. The utility uses Twitter and Facebook accounts to respond to customer concerns and provide updates during serious storms.
BGE is one of many companies that assign employees to monitor and attempt to address customer concerns raised on Twitter and Facebook before complaints go viral.
The firms also crave feedback, as well as opportunities to build loyalty and good will. With Twitter and Facebook, now attracting hundreds of millions of users, they are spending money on advertising and marketing campaigns on those platforms.
"Just about every public relations campaign has a social media strategy now, both a proactive and a reactive strategy," said Lisa Miles, president of the Maryland chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. "It's one of those things: Once you open your mouth, it's out there."
The new emphasis on social media is helping drive growth in the public relations field. The Department of Labor recently projected that the "public relations specialists" sector will grow 28 percent through 2018, with social media fueling much of the growth.
Online job forums are filling up with openings for social media professionals. Indeed.com, a top employment site, listed the term "social media" recently among the top 10 job trends. The prevalence of the term "social media" in job titles on the site has steadily grown over the past three years, from virtually zero to thousands of matching job postings.
The jobs that are advertised often straddle public relations, advertising, marketing and customer service.
"The person that we're hiring needs to be able to write, has experience with PR and is able to represent our brand," said Hayes of Mile One. "Thinking before you write something is essential. But you have to give them freedom."
Many public relations and marketing firms now offer companies guidance on social media strategy. Companies are even outsourcing some of their social media efforts to firms such as MGH Inc. in Owings Mills, Md.
"It's a weird role," said Ryan Goff, MGH's director of social media marketing. "It's pretty much all over the place. We have some clients who are dedicated to handling their social media accounts, and other companies still have their IT guys doing it."
Companies that aren't hiring full-time social media staff are still trying to set guidelines for how their employees use such sites. Stories abound of teachers, employees and job candidates losing jobs after producing out-of-bounds tweets and Facebook posts.
Even pros can get into hot water. A newly hired social-media specialist at an economic development agency in Pennsylvania was fired a few weeks ago for tweeting that employees left early on Fridays to play golf.
"I see these people who get fired for this sort of thing, and that always makes me cringe because I think you have to have a certain sense of humor," said Amy Phillips, who runs Baltimore-based Social Pollen, a social-media consulting firm. "There's lots of ways to turn what you consider a bad tweet around."
Companies seem increasingly willing to accept the risk of an embarrassing tweet in exchange for the opportunity to engage with customers. In 2009, 19 percent of companies surveyed by Robert Half Technology allowed employees to engage in social media for business purposes. This year, the recruiting firm reports, 51 percent permitted such activity.
Workers at the Association for Public Health Laboratories in Silver Spring, Md., are encouraged to use Twitter and Facebook to talk about what they do. The nonprofit association, which works with federal and state laboratories to promote public health issues, employs a senior media specialist, whose job includes handling the news media.
Over the last year, Michelle Forman's job has involved doing more with social media. She interacts with people on Twitter and Facebook, and pitches stories and files guest posts with bloggers who write about public health.
"I was sending more press releases when I first started than I am now," Forman said. "Not that we're reaching out to the press less; we're just doing it differently."
Now Forman is working with a consultant to craft a social media policy for the association's 95 employees. She said the guidelines will encourage employees to use social media for their work, but the messages they write will not be considered an official reflection of the organization's views.
"We felt like it was necessary to have a policy in place," Forman said.
Mile One takes a different approach. The company has 56 car dealerships across the country, but it is centralizing its communications and marketing from its corporate headquarters.
That means car dealers and salesman and auto mechanics aren't expected to engage customers on Twitter and Facebook - Hayes and the company's marketing and communications staff will.
BGE is also in the process of writing rules for social media. For now, it's using the policy of its parent company, Constellation Energy Group, as guidance. Employees who send messages on Twitter and Facebook that mention either company must identify themselves as employees.
The information must be accurate, and employees can't speak outside their scope of work or responsibility, said Diane Hughes, BGE's director of social media and Web engagement.
"Employees have to be transparent if they're going to say something about BGE," Hughes said.
Jeff Davis, a partner in Sawmill Marketing Public Relations in Baltimore who advises clients on social media strategy, said more companies will recognize the importance of social media.
He also believes that the social media profession will continue to deepen because companies can't afford to mismanage their brands online.
"Just because somebody knows how to set up a Facebook or Twitter account doesn't mean you should turn over your 100-year-old brand to them," he said.