Last holiday season, I watched with interest as three discussions unfolded in parallel: two in different groups of current and past editorial professionals, the third in a group of PR and marketing professionals.
The topic was gifting etiquette. Two of the discussions were focused on holiday gifts/correspondence, and the third was about how to thank an acquaintance for a connection that led to a five-figure piece of business.
The responses were varied, and ranged from hand-written thank you cards to subscription boxes to chocolates to a bonsai tree to “Why have I never thought to make this gesture before?”
Most, though not all, of the professional freelancers in the referral-gift thread agreed that a gift card, from Starbucks or Amazon or even Visa, is a universally acceptable gesture. A vocal minority held out that such cards are “tacky” and that the money should instead be spent on treating the person to a meal or drinks.
Gifting vs. not gifting: It depends on your role
It turns out, people who cut their teeth in traditional journalism are morally opposed to special occasion gifting, while people from agency backgrounds are enthusiastic about it. While most journalists have accepted comps or special rates while researching stories, they prefer not to do anything that could be perceived as quid-pro-quo with clients. This extends to journalism professionals who have left publishing houses or news stations and moved into branded work. Editors also seem to be most comfortable with a zero-gift policy, even during the holidays.
For consultants who fill more of an agency or vendor role for their clients, it’s a whole different story. The question is not whether to send tangible thank-you tokens — it is more about choosing occasions, reasonable amounts to spend, and how creative/personalized to get. This extends not just to clients, but to colleagues that have been particularly helpful, prospective new clients post-meeting, and absolutely to people who have referred new business.
After spending 12 years in the camp of often receiving and rarely giving, it’s my opinion that we could all do with adopting a policy of greater generosity and thoughtfulness. (Which is not to be confused with finders’ fees, kickbacks or flat-out graft. Though these practices indeed grease the wheels of many business transactions, they also blur and even cross ethical lines.) Gifting on a small scale — say, in the value of $50 or even $100 — is not an ethical gray area. It’s an opportunity to show thanks in a creative, personal way. And as the following examples prove, from the giver or the beneficiary’s perspective, a small gesture can make a long-lasting impression.
Not surprisingly, the rules of classic etiquette inspire people to be both mindful and creative in their gifting, often coming up with an intricate system of many luxury sources, customizable go-to items, and special local delivery services. No matter what the occasion, a gracious thank-you gesture can enhance it.
While this level of thoughtfulness admittedly requires a personal assistant to maintain, it also distinguishes the giver as that rare person who always makes life and business more pleasant.
For someone I’ve worked with, or who has done something really important, I send a small gift from Gump’s, usually pretty salt and pepper shakers. I pick different shapes depending on the person. Gave a man a squirrel and nut, a women who likes the ocean a pair of octopi, and someone else pewter giraffes. And it all comes beautifully gift- wrapped.
For larger projects, like my book editors, I send a crystal bowl from Tiffany’s. Who can resist the blue box?
I sometimes take a little note. For example on a shoot, the creative director said how he always wanted to live in Detroit. So I sent him a cool book about Detroit history with a note.
I took etiquette classes as a kid. My mom and grandmother are old-school. And I will never stop giving notes and gifts. They are the moments that I enjoy most when I’m on the other side. It’s so special to have something come in the mail that isn’t a bill!!
— Liza Gershman, photographer and creative director
A sweet delivery
When in doubt, a beautiful, customized and locally purchased flower arrangement or pastry basket is a gesture of tangible sweetness that can be appreciated by everyone in a workplace. Really, this is a gesture that goes over well much more than once a year. Make a habit of it!
I will often send really beautiful floral arrangements from a locally recommended florist (not a tele-florist), if someone did something OTT nice for me. I have also sent wine or booze, if I know their preference.
— Wendy Zipes Hunter, President/CEO Celebrity Concepts & Marketing
Personalized and meaningful
In many cases, it’s not the dollar amount spent so much as the thoughtful intention to improve someone else’s life. Whether you’re performing a service for them or offering some sort of perk they wouldn’t get for themselves, these gifts always are meaningful
For one client who was struggling financially, I managed her Facebook for a month without charging. For another who is super into working out, it was a Lululemon gift certificate.
— Karen Dennis, KSD Public & Media Relations
Acknowledge when someone went the extra mile
Say it’s someone’s job to arrange travel for you, or look after your accommodations and wellbeing at an event. Sure, they’re getting paid to do it — but if they show you extra TLC, a personalized “thank you” token is a classy way to show that you noticed.
It’s definitely not the norm, but I have had media guests send me hand-written thank-you cards and bring me bottles of wine as a “thank you” for press trips.
I’ve also had current clients refer new business to me, and so for them I’ve put together a little thank-you overnight getaway to someplace cute and relaxing in wine country or on the coast.
— Caitlin Sandberg Brancale, Poppyseed PR
All I got was a t-shirt… and that was enough.
For PR professionals or on-set producers or other professional white-glove babysitters, handholding becomes such standard practice that neither side even acknowledges it anymore. But rest assured, if you’re the one who notices and appreciates, any gesture, no matter how small, will be remembered forever.
Back in my PR days, I’d put together a list of places to check out in the Lower East Side for a SF-based journalist. No clients, just stuff I really liked back when I used to go on long neighborhood discovery walks, and stuff I missed about NYC (I was in LA by then).
I mentioned a young designers’ pop-up market where I bought a custom dress for $50, and how I’d always regretted not picking up a t-shirt I’d spotted there.
About a month later, a package arrived in the mail — she’d spotted the t-shirt, and sent me one as a thank you! I was bowled over. It was the kindest thing. especially when one works in PR, the appreciation can be rare. So the thank-you for going beyond client work and strengthening a relationship was not only worth it, but definitely something I’ll never forget.
— Laura Pettit, Seattle-based communications manager