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)

In the Baltimore area, several 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.

"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 pruposes. This year, the recruiting firm reports, 51 percent permitted such activity.

Workers at the Association for Public Health Laboratories in Silver Spring 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 past 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.