Words From PR Execs: The Art of Celebrity & Brand Matchmaking from Mike Rush

To continue with leveraging the experienced and wise voices in the PR industry, PR Club Board Member and Content Lead, Catie Valzania, sat down with Mike Rush, Chief Growth Officer and Partner at 360PR+ for the next edition of the “Words from PR Executives” series.

Here is what Mike had to say:

What is one piece of advice you would give to someone who is just starting out in communications?

Don’t limit yourself just to the discipline of communications. It is imperative that you become a well-rounded marketer and understand how the full spectrum of marketing works – and how PR intersects with and supports or amplifies sales, advertising, social, experiential, paid, etc. The best communicators are ones that understand integrated thinking and how other aspects of marketing can impact PR and vice versa.

What does the future of PR look like to you?

There will be a greater emphasis on reputation management. AI is center stage and it will be a tool we harness to create speed, efficiency and scale—and in some cases spark creativity—but with that comes necessary guardrails and inherent risks. From deep fakes to hallucinations and bias, AI will also create a greater need for reputation management. Nothing near term will be replacing a keen, careful, and strategic eye – a human in the loop – advising on what to do next with empathy and cultural awareness.

What is your go-to news source?

As trite as it sounds, a healthy media mix representing all views and opinions is crucial. I like to read the New York Times and The Boston Globe newsletters that land in my inbox each morning. As many people and brands are fleeing X/Twitter, I still skim it for breaking news, trending topics, and a regional perspective—it’s just as important to know what even the fringe is saying (though the hateful rhetoric can be discouraging at times). While I’ve cut cable, I stream local broadcast at dinnertime as filler so I can keep tabs on what’s going on in my neighborhood. Oh, and I love Real Time with Bill Maher and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

What is your number one piece of pitching advice?

Be human and don’t bury the lede. With some national broadcast producers, if you can’t figure out how to convey the story in a short subject line, they’ve already tuned out. Build relationships by bringing journalists exclusive (meaningful) news, special access, and immersive experiences.

What is the value of partnering with a celebrity spokesperson? How do you sell this strategy to your clients?

Celebrity deals and endorsements seemed far more common 10 – 15 years ago and then fell out of favor. Perhaps it was the FTC crack down on third party disclosure of brand affiliation, or perhaps it was a swing towards engaging more micro or nano influencers. Celebrity engagements are back in a big way. They can help bring rapid awareness, reach, and earned media interest overnight. What is key is building an authentic partnership designed to be unique and newsworthy—not just slapping a celebrity name on a company’s website or product.

Can you elaborate on what you mean when you say celebrity partnerships need to be done authentically?

It is vital that you look at the number of brands that they’ve currently worked with to make sure they are not oversaturated. Ensure that there is a natural connection to either usage of your product or service or a natural connection to a larger problem that you’re trying to solve as a brand. That genuine framework of the partnership will give way to more believable and interesting storytelling.

What is your top advice to give someone when they’re thinking of partnering with a celebrity?

Due diligence. PR teams and brands can be quickly enamored by a bright and shiny star, but the first move should be a giant step back. Start by looking at who is an authentic storyteller, and authentic to your brand. Ensure their social following matches your target audience and use data from an influencer identification & management tool to substantiate this. Conduct a thorough audit of where the talent has appeared, previous brand partnerships and other organization alignments, and scrub social media and the broader internet for a sense of their tone, consumer sentiment and commentary, and any past issues. At 360PR+, we have an extensive screening criteria checklist we apply to ensure brand fit and a squeaky clean reputation—and it’s vital this vetting process is documented as a safeguard (some clients’ legal teams require this, too).

What are your tips for celebrity negotiations?

Before you even get to the negotiation phase, building relationships with agents is important so you understand who they represent and how they work. This can help inform the identification process—for example, what activities celebrities have coming up in their personal or professional life that could impact their relevance, like a new show, book, tour, etc.—or, what PR blackouts are coming up in their schedule that could impact your campaign. You also want to understand the agents’ personalities, which will come to light in the negation process.

Be flexible. Both parties want to feel good about making a deal, and concessions must be made to get the deal done—it’s a negotiation, after all. Be flexible with your talent’s key messages, too. If you’re ultimately aiming for an authentic story, it needs to be in the celebrity’s natural voice. Celebrities don’t want to be spoon-fed stiff, corporate messages. They want to put the partnership and story in their own natural language so it doesn’t sound forced, and often that can be achieved and mutually agreed upon through a tissue session (write this into the contract).

Know your BATNA, which is the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. Always know your non-negotiables at the outset—what you won’t flex on or when it’s time to cut loose and back out of a deal. All negotiations should start with asking for more than you expect to get in the deal points, knowing those will be knocked down at the outset.

Lastly, don’t waste agents’ time. Negotiating with multiple talent options at once is poor form and a fast way to lose trust and credibility with the agent community.

How do you measure success through celebrity partnerships?

This ultimately depends on objectives and what you’re asking your celebrity to do. If you’re a digital service and you want to drive downloads, you should consider co-curating content with that celebrity in-app so there is a direct call-to-action and reason to download, like exclusive, stickier content. If you’re looking for broad brand awareness, that could be measured by examining aided vs. unaided awareness pre and post-campaign through brand health studies. For a social media campaign, make sure have the right tools in place to track cost per engagement, click throughs, conversions, etc. (again, depending on your objectives). Think beyond a standard endorsement and structure a contract to include content or activities that will get you closest to what moves your client or brand’s business. KPIs are essential at the outset.

Recently, for 360PR+ client MyFitnessPal, we contracted with wellness guru and celebrity Kate Hudson as our spokesperson for a New Year’s resolution campaign, co-creating an in-app meal plan “Small Steps, Big Wins” to kick start healthier habits. There was a direct and clear call-to-action for consumers – download the app to see how Kate’s seven-day program includes great strategies like swapping out high-sugar foods and habit-stacking hydration.

Who is your favorite celebrity that you’ve partnered with?

I have worked with the likes of actor Sean Astin as well as Eddie Lucas from Bravo’s Below Deck, but one of my favorite 360PR+ celebrity partnerships was through our work with Trainline, Europe’s #1 booking app for travel by rail. We partnered with Queer Eye’s Tan France and co-created a “Trainleisure” style guide to Europe (our brainchild!)—the best train looks, hand selected by Tan based on his favorite travels, including what to wear on a sleeper car. We brought the guide to life in Los Angeles with media event and fashion show. The campaign ultimately drove earned media coverage, web traffic, and even ticket sales.


About Mike:

As a Partner and 17-year veteran at 360PR+, Mike drives strategy for some of the agency’s largest clients in the automotive, travel, home goods, tech and financial services sectors. Mike leads 360 AGENDA, which focuses on executive thought leadership and helping companies establish themselves as innovators, agenda-setters, and changemakers. Mike is adept at creating brand platforms and C-suite vision statements that create pivotal news moments while also developing sustained thought leadership programs across social media, events, earned and paid media. With two decades of experience working with brand and communications leaders, Mike’s work has advanced global businesses, helped them navigate transformative periods, and establish relevance, trust, and authority across customers, investors, employees and other stakeholders. Mike has led breakthrough creative campaigns for Virgin Atlantic, MyFitnessPal, CarGurus, Trek Bicycle, Liberty Mutual Insurance and its tech incubator Solaria Labs, Avis Budget Group, and decarbonization platform NZero. Prior to joining 360PR+, Mike worked at Weber Shandwick and Arnold Worldwide. A champion of best practices, he is actively involved in PROI Worldwide, leads the agency’s Research & Insights Department and Measurement Taskforce, and has served as a Board member for PRSA Boston. Supporting student entrepreneurship, Mike is involved in BUILD.org’s Boston Chapter, a nonprofit organization that empowers youths to become the CEO of their own lives. In his spare time, he can be found sailing along the East Coast with his partner of 19 years.