Introductions, Referrals, Recommendations and References – Not Created Equally Online

In these days of social media madness and online relationships, it can take even more work to be sure that who you’re talking to is genuine, qualified and credible. I’ve noticed that people ask for things online in a more bold way than they used to, when face-to-face relationships ruled. Just this week I’ve been asked to write references for people I don’t know, link to and “check out and promote” several products – ranging from consumer goods and business apps, to social media training services – all of which I’ve never tried (PS you know this is what companies pay me to do, right?), and to make introductions for someone to another person who I’m not even connected with or know. What is it about digital relationships that make people so bold? How much clout do you give referrals or recommendations on networking communities and online reputation graders such as Klout, BranchOut, RateStars, Namyz and countless others? How do you handle it when a near (or total) stranger asks for a referral or other validation? Sometimes you might not even think too much about it because social networks make it so easy to just provide a recommendation without really thinking it through.

Managing your personal brand is important, yes. Ensuring your online activity is of positive quality – absolutely essential in business. Showcasing a robust online “rolodex” and “Klout score” is also key for most business professionals – especially in social marketing. But asking for and displaying recommendations or “references” from folks that really don’t know you or your work is a little misleading – and in my opinion, getting to become a disturbing “norm.” Asking for an introduction is one thing, but introductions, referrals, recommendations and references are not created equally. Do you know the difference?

  • Introduction – offering to introduce someone to a professional who works in a certain industry or could provide services that a company is seeking. Perhaps you just know of them and are connecting them with someone seeking vendors.
  • Referral – similar to an introduction, a referral could include someone you haven’t worked with, as long as you make that clear, such as, “I see you are seeking a socially savvy PR firm. I have heard that PerkettPR is great, although I’ve never personally worked with them.” These are also often made as a result of being connected online in communities such as Namyz or BranchOut.
  • Recommendation – usually involves knowing the work of a particular person, company or product, such as “I recommend PerkettPR because I’ve seen their digital work and am always impressed,” or “I tried this product and it worked for me.” Recommendations are big on Linkedin – but it’s important to note that many times people ask others to provide them without actually having worked together. It’s kind of like “link love” – I’ll give you one if you give me one. Make sure it’s a legit recommendation.
  • Reference – this is key. A reference is usually what someone asks for when they’ve been through all of the above… Such as, “Okay, I was introduced or referred to you, I received or read a few recommendations from folks in the industry who know of you and have seen your work, now I’d like to talk to someone who has actually worked with you and can talk to the results that you delivered, your work style, etc.”

And why should you care? I can think of a few reasons – both personal and professional:

  • Are you hiring employees?
  • Qualifying a vendor?
  • Hiring a services firm (like PR)?
  • Comparing products?

These are important business developments and should be vetted appropriately. Make sure you know the difference between someone providing a recommended vendor or individual based on word of mouth, and an actual reference based on experience. Online relationships have blurred the lines and sometimes people are providing recommendations to others just for popularity points, unfortunately. Be sure that you speak to actual references when hiring an employee, vendor or services firm, especially. The online world can still be misleading.

I also suggest doing some of your own digging to find people or companies who have worked with the person or vendor before – that aren’t on their reference list. For example, if you’re seeking a new PR firm, Google who a specific firm has worked with and reach out to someone there to ask about their experience. Sometimes the unlisted references are the best references.

What’s Wrong With Your PR?

Do you know the answer to this before you start researching a new PR firm to hire? Have you taken a good look at your current program and working relationship and truly understand what needs to improve? Do you have a plan for integrating PR with other marketing elements?

In meetings with prospects I’ve found that many don’t. They don’t know what’s wrong with their PR, only that they “need something more.” They don’t have a plan for integrating PR with other forms of marketing – in fact, many times they’ve never even thought about the connection. But all marketing should be integrated and PR should support and work to promote every other element in your marketing arsenal.

If you head into a working relationship without a firm idea of what you want improved, it’s difficult to expect your PR firm to deliver results that will meet your – or the Board’s – expectations. Many times the C-suite has a very narrow view of what PR means to them – usually top of mind is media relations, although these days word-of-mouth is also becoming a unit of measurement for them, thanks to social media.

Every agency has been in a new business meeting where the prospect has brought out a list of what the last agency didn’t do. They don’t necessarily correlate this to what they thought the agency should have done – and I’ve found that rarely, if ever, do they have a clear and definitive overview on where the agency fell short in regards to specific metrics or promised goals.

Before you change agencies or look for a new firm for the first time, ask yourself:

- How do I define PR?

- What specifically has been missing that’s driving us to hire a PR firm?

- How do I expect PR to integrate into my overall marketing plan? What about sales? Customer service? Other areas of our business?

- What specific programs do I want in my PR campaign?

- How will I measure the success of those programs; of the campaign overall?

- How much do I expect the PR firm to manage and do my resources align with this expectation – honestly?

- What benchmark metrics do I have to give the PR firm to begin – so they can plan and measure accordingly?

- What characteristics do I want in my PR team? What do I like about the people I work with now?

- What attributes do I want in a PR firm? Big name? All senior team? Boutique or conglomerate? What’s my experience been in the past with each and what were the pros and cons?

- What have my trusted colleagues experienced – good and bad – in working with a PR firm and how can I avoid those same mistakes?

- What role do I want to play in managing the PR firm? Side-by-side colleague and teammate? Hands off manager?

- What matters most to me? What matters most to my boss(es)? Are we on the same page with how we’ll define success in working with a PR firm?

Many times this last point is one of the biggest snags in a successful agency/client relationship. Too many times the day-to-day executive tasked with managing the PR firm does not clearly understand how the CMO, VP of Marketing or other C-level executives will define success. And when they’re not on the same page, it’s pretty impossible for the PR firm to be successful. And that brings me to one final point – who’s in charge of your PR internally? Do you respect them? Do you trust them? Did you hire the right person for the job? Start there – because if you haven’t, you’re not only wasting money on their salary, but you’ll be throwing dollars out the window for a PR firm to fail, too.

So, what’s wrong with your PR? And how do you plan to fix it – or how have you in the past? Please share your experiences in the comments so our readers can benefit from your wisdom.

You Get What You Give with a PR Firm

As I was sitting in a planning meeting with our newest client last week, I was impressed with how much information they were sharing with us and how much effort they were putting into the relationship from the start. Not only did all of the key executives, including the CEO, meet with us for a half day and answer all of the questions we could throw at them, they also had sales executives present to our team – to show us how they sell and let us ask questions of them as any prospect might. This kind of exposure and information-gathering is key to helping us truly understand their business – what’s going well, what the challenges are, how the company presents itself, etc. Sharing information and communicating your overall business goals – not just the marketing department’s – is key to building the most successful relationship with your PR firm.

Too often, companies believe hiring a PR firm is just a notch on the marketing team’s belt and they are afraid to share “too much” information with the agency. Despite NDAs and contracts, they fear that providing deep insight into the business will cause the agency to lose focus or know too much. But think about why you hired a PR agency in the first place – you expect them to represent you, your products/services and brand to the world. You turn to them in times of crisis and you expect their strategic insight will change opinions, capture mindshare and alleviate naysayers. You expect them to be able to position you in the best light and in the most relevant opportunities, and you expect them to be able to speak intelligently about your space and your market – as though they worked for the company themselves.

And in essence, we do. At PerkettPR, we insist on being privy to marketing and sales discussions as well as C-level planning – because we’re a part of each client’s team. We can only do our best work when clients trust us, communicate with us and include us. You cannot expect any PR firm to do a good job if you aren’t letting them see the whole picture – good and bad. Let your agency help you figure out how to build the best positioning, strategy and approach with all the pieces clearly laid out in front of them. With such knowledge, they can help you to highlight your best assets, deal sensibly with any challenges, and turn around any negativity.

If you’ve hired a PR firm, you have already made a sizeable commitment. Make sure you get the most return on your investment by trusting your team and working closely with them on all fronts – great PR goes well beyond news releases and media relations, and should be treated as an investment in the overall future health of your company.

Key points:
• If you are making the investment in a PR firm, truly engage them
• Ensure C-level executive involvement
• Trust your agency – you didn’t hire them to be “yes men”
• Make the relationship open and honest
• The more you give, the better results you receive