Over the past couple of years, an entirely new kind of executive has begun to appear in the upper echelons of US corporations: the social media strategist. Some 200 major US businesses now employ such a person.

If you want to understand why, just look at what befell Sarah Palin last week. She’s not a corporation exactly, but her recent adventures in social media have been salutary – showing why engaging with people online can be such a double-edged sword.

Since emerging on the national scene, Palin has used social media like Twitter and Facebook to rally her core supporters, with a fair degree of success. But then she got embroiled in the aftermath of the horrific shooting of US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona earlier this month.

Palin‘s first mistake was to allow an employee to claim on the day of the shooting that a poster her campaign created last year and which featured gun sights superimposed on locations where she hoped to help defeat Democrat incumbents in fact depicted “surveyor’s marks”.

That explanation was quickly de-bunked when journalists found an old tweet of Palin‘s referring to the map as featuring “bull’s-eyes”, leaving Team Sarah to appear either shiftless or guilt-ridden. Next, more than 350,000 people raced to US expat Karin Robinson’s ObamaLondon blog to read how negative comments on Palin’s Facebook page were being erased in almost real time – but not before Robinson was able to copy the original posts and share them with the world.

Then, last Wednesday, Palin posted a video to Facebook defending herself from accusations of inciting political violence and accusing her detractors of perpetrating a “blood libel” against her – a term widely construed as being either shockingly ignorant or grossly insensitive, or both.
It added up to a nightmare week for the possible 2012 presidential candidate – and should give pause to anyone concerned with their online reputations.

Most US corporations, of course, care very much about their reputations and many will be thankful to feel at least a step ahead of Palin when it comes to managing their presences in the complex new social media world.

But they are only a small step ahead. The confluence of social media with the long memories of online search engines has dramatically altered how national conversations about politics, or products – or oil spills – now run. So it’s hardly surprising that the people whom companies have been hiring to try to influence such conversations are making up a lot of what they are doing as they go along.

Among the challenges they face is the potential for anything anyone said months or even years ago to return and haunt the speaker. It used to be that your critics had to keep archives of the right press clippings or spend a lot of time in a video library to find material relevant to their cause. Not so today.

It’s never been easier to “prove” someone’s hypocrisy by exposing inconsistencies between what they say now and their comments in the past.
Tweets, meanwhile, can seem ephemeral, but once sent are all but impossible to repress. And, as Karin Robinson deftly illustrated last week, Facebook comments are tricky to edit quietly when you suddenly start getting trashed for something you’ve done.

In the wake of Palin’s (and others’) mass online editing following the Tucson shooting, CBS Business writer Erik Sherman wrote: “Executives need to understand that social media isn’t a trivial plaything to be used on a whim. They need strategy as well as tactics, and the tools and sophisticated business processes to control them.”

Establishing such a strategy is the corporate Social Media Strategist’s main job. Distinct from traditional roles in marketing, advertising or corporate communications, the position also requires a comprehensive understanding of how social media change the overall media equation for businesses, an ability to prevent everyone from senior executives to low-level employees from blogging or tweeting things they (or the company) will one day regret, and the foresight to know what those things might be.

Many such strategists also run their company’s corporate blog and Twitter feed. That makes them public figures in the way that only CEOs or paid celebrity endorsers used to be. Take Scott Monty, head of social media at Ford, for instance. He has nearly 50,000 followers on Twitter.

“This role will become pervasive in the coming years, just as leaders who manage the corporate website have become essential,” believes Jeremiah Owyang, a technical analyst who began noting corporate hiring in social media back in 2007 and has been tracking it ever since.

While it can easily pay a cool $150,000 (£94,500) salary, Owyang calls the job of social media strategist “deceptively challenging”. That’s partly because corporate leaders are often clueless about what the job actually entails or why they need to listen to the person occupying it.

It’s also hard to measure the value such positions add – at least until you have a full-scale social media brand disaster on your hands.

Many hired into these roles are online marketing experts. And yet “most social strategists and their programmes lack maturity”, concludes Owyang in a recent report. To succeed, they’ll need be highly strategic in their thinking, he writes, or risk relegation to “the social media help desk”.

The repercussions for their employers can be worse. A brand disaster is pretty much how you could describe Palin’s recent online experience – a performance variously described as poorly-timed, tone-deaf, offensive, shameless, self-pitying, and anti-semitic. Others have speculated that her actions were calculatedly divisive.

But companies would be wiser to view Palin’s as a textbook case of what not to do – and hire themselves a social media strategist quick.