When they’re not out practicing Twitter jujitsu, social media managers craft companywide guidelines and also proselytize within the ranks. Some employees inevitably balk at the idea of tweeting about their jobs because it sounds suspiciously like more work. Others worry—often rightfully—about oversharing themselves into trouble. Last year, James Andrews, a vice-president at the PR firm Ketchum flew to Memphis to talk to employees at FedEx (FDX), one of the agency’s largest clients, about digital media. Shortly after arriving in Memphis, Andrews wrote on his Twitter account, dubbed @keyinfluencer: “True confession but I’m in one of those towns where I scratch my head and say, ‘I would die if I had to live here.’ ” Someone at FedEx noticed the sideswipe and took offense, touching off a storm that resulted in an embarrassing public apology on behalf of Ketchum executives. (Andrews did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.)

Just as people sometimes type more than they should, companies rolling out a new product on social media can quickly lose control of their message. Last year, prior to launching the 2010 Accord Crosstour, Honda (HMC) set up a Facebook fan page for the model. Instead of attracting praise, however, the forum soon blew up with critical comments knocking the design of the new car, which, in turn, drew a bunch of snarky media attention and plenty of negative buzz.

Jim Durbin, the creator of socialmediaheadhunter.com, says experienced social media directors—business strategists capable of identifying a company’s needs and solving them using social media tools—can command $120,000 a year and up. Further down the ladder are community managers, who oversee a company’s day-to-day social media operations and earn $60,000 to $80,000. Below them are cub Twitter managers, essentially copywriters with little business experience, who typically earn $30,000 to $50,000. The higher-paid directors are often required to justify their salaries with progress reports to upper management and sometimes must fight for the respect and acknowledgement they feel they deserve. Metrics used to evaluate success in corporate social media might include: number of Tweets; number of re-Tweets (a Twitter message that’s resent by a follower); instances of “customer recovery,” in which an irate civilian is successfully mollified; an increase in the number of Facebook fans or Twitter followers; and the number of photos of your product that have been posted online. “We look for opportunities to take our fans and give them more reasons to share their fandom and express their love for the brand,” says Rick Wion, the director of social media for McDonald’s (MCD). Wion says he is currently crafting a measurement scale that would compare his metrics to the company’s traditional media efforts.

Because most of the tools of the profession are free, the new class of social media managers can find themselves stuck with meager operational budgets. One solution is to team up with flush neighbors in the marketing department to create campaigns aimed at converting relevant social media “influencers” (anyone with a bunch of followers anywhere online) into “brand ambassadors” through the strategic deployment of free stuff.

Earlier this summer, for instance, Princess Cruises hosted roughly a dozen Twitter-loving travel hobbyists on an 11-day “cruisetour” through Alaska. It’s hard to put a value on the results; Rick Griffin, owner of a site called The Midlife Road Trip Show, tweeted to his 20,000-plus followers: “My ‘boat ride’ was incredible!! Had the time of my life and I gained about 12 pounds :).”

Similarly, Ford Motor (F) last year handed over advance models of the Ford Fiesta to a hundred social-media-savvy “agents.” In a press release, Ford described the agents as “witty, irreverent, and adventurous” enthusiasts who were “socially outgoing, and more than happy to share their opinions” with fellow “Millennials, the next-generation consumer group born between 1979 and 1995.” Recently the company announced that if it can get 30,000 people to “like” the Explorer on Facebook, it will give away a 2011 model.

The genre of corporate Twitter writing does not, as a rule, lend itself to brilliance. Noteworthiness is not the goal. Diligence and volume tend to be the yardsticks by which one’s opus is measured. The prolific Scott Monty, head of social media at Ford, is often cited by his peers as a luminary of the field. On a recent Thursday he oversaw 12 updates on the Ford general Twitter account, eight on the Ford customer-service Twitter, two posts on FordDriveGreen Twitter, and one on FordMustang Twitter. That same day, Monty wrote 38 Ford-related posts on his own Twitter account. Most were aimed at other posters, creating in sum a long string of half-conversations, all of which were successfully innocuous and perfectly forgettable.

“People don’t trust corporations as much as they used to,” says Monty. “They trust third-party experts, and they trust people like themselves.” He believes that Ford’s social media strategy is “humanizing” the company by using platforms like Twitter. “Ultimately, it’s the most personal of all the social networks,” he says. “It’s one-on-one communication in the public square. It gives a person the satisfaction of having interaction with a big company like Ford and of being listened to. And it also shows the public that we’re listening and that we get it.”

As Ford and others listen harder, the social media job category, which hardly existed five years ago, should continue to attract refugees from various sputtering corners of the economy. A decade ago, Malaszenko could hardly have predicted that she’d now be heading up Petco’s social media practices. “This is a career path that I sort of fell into,” she says. “I originally was working on a PhD in cognitive neuroscience.”

Gillette is a reporter for Bloomberg News.

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