Nicole Hayes

Nicole Hayes, e-commerce director for Mile One Automotive Group, is shown in the car lot of Heritage Honda. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston / June 16, 2011)

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.

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 (which is made by a Baltimore company) 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."