Especially in the high-tech electronics industry, public relations is critical to building demand for products coming down the supply chain pipe. Electronics OEMs that want to succeed often partner with a PR agency, but the success or failure of a partnership depends greatly on the customer being a good client.
What great agency clients do
Since public relations is done "with" the management team or owners, rather than being done "to" a company, there's an essentially different nature to how this kind of professional service is successfully delivered. It's much more akin to legal or medical services, with the "defendants" or "patients" (read management team members) having to be deeply and consistently involved in an ongoing process. As the now-famous slogan coined by Regis McKenna goes, "PR is a process, not an event." Without that understanding, PR efforts generally go nowhere, and the agency won't be working with that client for long.
Two business cards, one team
It's most productive when the PR agency and client people work as a team. The ideal is a blurred distinction between the two organizations. The goals are nearly the same; only the paychecks and business cards are different. Efficient teamwork and friendships develop, with the clients relying on agencies for a full range of strategic and tactical communications values. The agency is free to ask all questions, including the hard or perhaps embarrassing ones. It can offer help wherever and whenever needed while remembering its charter to client service.
Where things can go really right or very wrong is typically from the outset. The client/agency relationship needs to be based on a high degree of trust and openness. You see this plea or expectation on agencies' websites all the time, often with words to the effect of "We have strong relationships with our clients." PR services need to be delivered like any other professional service, such as those typically required by lawyers or accountants. Public relations can truly add value to a business or organization only if the agency people have an intimate understanding of what's going on, warts and all. Arm's-length relationships where the agency is seen as a "vendor" (like office supplies or a delivery service) isn't going to yield effective long-term results, because the agency won't be let into what strategically bears on the business. Without that, PR plans will likely be short-term and off the mark, and they won't deliver desired results that matter.
Getting what you pay for
Taking this perspective further, hiring an agency just to execute some tactics like a string of press releases would be like going to the doctor to have a Band-Aid applied. You can do it and pay for it, but it certainly isn't the best use of your money or the doctor's talents. You've got to tell the experts where it hurts and let them diagnose whether or how applying public relations practices may relieve the pain. If you want real agency value, show your business or marketing plans and explain your objectives. Mention what may or may not have worked in the PR area previously. Then let the pros prescribe ideas and strategies that address your business problems. Valuable agency people want to understand the core challenges and bring their experience, imagination, and creativity to finding a solution.
Remember that you're investing in expertise to help with business problems that you can't or don't want to solve by yourself. Find an agency that will lead you toward desired goals and an effective market position. Let it become a strategic asset. Just hiring some extra hands to perform work that you direct and decide is valuable isn't cost-effective. In that case, hire a junior employee.
Conversely, for the agency people reading this, if your client isn't taking your advice or, worse, is dictating strategies and tactics, plan on replacing the account as soon as possible. You're just an order taker. You'll be replaced very soon.