Most employers are ready to make you an offer by the time they check references. However, if there are several candidates being considered for the same job, the reference check likely will determine who gets the offer.
Three references only is my recommendation, and this number appears to be the standard expectation from most agencies and corporations. Ideally, these are people to whom you reported in a job. If you don’t have agency or corporate work experience, other good choices are faculty advisors or heads of organizations in which you were involved. I recommend not more than one personal reference and, ideally, the individual should have a relevant title.
Get your references lined up before you start the interview process. Several recruiters and HR directors tell me how surprised they are by the number of references who are not aware their names were being used without the applicant advising them. Be sure to include complete and accurate titles and contact information for each reference. That alone is a good reason to talk directly with your references.
While most applicants do not provide references with the initial resume, I recommend it for entry-level positions–especially if the references are from name-brand companies or agencies. Sometimes you are asked for references during the interview, so go prepared. And some interviewers might ask you what a particular reference would say about you. By all means, make sure your references know why you want a job in public relations. A reminder call or email to your references is a good idea if you know for sure that the prospective employer will be calling them. Don’t call after every interview, however.
Finally, don’t forget to thank your references when you land a job. It’s also a good idea to send notes to everyone with whom you interviewed to let them know that you landed. Your next job could very well come from one of these individuals.