Selective's Cooper finds variety is spice of insurance

After starting her career as a TV reporter, Sharon Cooper found stability working in insurance PR. Now she applies her media skills to crafting comms for Selective Insurance Group.

After starting her career as a TV reporter, Sharon Cooper found stability working in insurance PR. Now she applies her media skills to crafting comms for Selective Insurance Group.

It's not uncommon to find a PR practitioner with roots in journalism. After all, the two professions rely on many of the same qualities: a respect for deadlines, a desire to spread information, and the ability to communicate effectively. And for Sharon Cooper, SVP and director of communications for Selective Insurance Group in Branchville, NJ, these same qualities led her, too, to evolve her career path from journalism to PR.

Growing up in Illinois, Cooper always had a deep interest in reading, writing, and the news. Following graduation from college, where she majored in broadcast journalism, a career as a TV reporter seemed like the logical next step. She started at a station in San Angelo, TX, one of the smallest TV markets in the US. Eventually she moved on to stations in Augusta and Atlanta, GA. She describes her experience as a reporter as a training ground for her subsequent career in PR.

"One of the great things about it is that you learn some phenomenal skills that I don't think you learn somewhere else," she says. "Both the deadline skills and that ability to gather and share information with a wide array of audiences on a broad array of topics, to me, [are] phenomenal training for anything on the other side of the house."

Looking for a change, as well as a more stable way of life, Cooper decided to change professions. By a sheer fluke, she says, she got a job doing PR and media relations work for Insurance News Service, a Columbia, SC-based insurance trade organization that represents 25 insurance companies. Once there, she threw herself into the insurance business, working in different departments of some of the member companies to learn the ins and outs of the industry. She even went so far as to get a CPCU - a special classification for insurance - to learn more. After years of TV reporting, she says, such in-depth knowledge of one particular topic was a concept that was completely foreign to her. "In the media, you learn a little bit about a lot of things, but you don't necessarily learn a lot about anything," she says with a laugh.

Once she had gathered enough knowledge about the workings of the insurance industry, Cooper made the move to working directly for an insurance company, Allstate, first in Dallas and then in Chicago. At the Dallas office, she was responsible for developing a field corporate communications department for that division, something she excelled at, says Gary Briggs, field VP for Allstate's Dallas office. "Her communication skills are a great asset," he says. "She could run a small country. She's really a terrific leader."

After her Dallas stint, Cooper transferred to the company's Chicago office, a move that Briggs supported. "I felt that she had more to offer than what she was doing," he says, adding that Cooper was equally as good at all facets of her job. "She doesn't have a weakness in her skill sets in the corporate relations side of this business."

Those skills eventually landed her at Selective Insurance Group, where her duties include everything from marketing communications, corporate communications, and presentations to quarterly earnings announcements, maintenance of the company website, and media relations. "Having that variety is a very interesting part of the job," she says. "It's a juggling act." And she certainly has her hands full: Her team of 10 has the added responsibility of communicating with the 750 insurance agents that use Selective's services, as well as with the company's 2,200 employees in 21 states.

That constant need for messaging, no matter what the audience, is what keeps Cooper interested in the insurance industry. "[Insurance is] always challenging, it's always interesting, and it's an industry that needs a lot of communication," she says. "There's always a new challenge to take on."

In fact, while trade communication is an important part of the company's goal, communication to employees and agents often factors in just as heavily. "We very much take a holistic approach to communication. We believe each piece of the message reinforces the message as a whole," she says. "Any one of those pieces in and of themselves may be effective, but not nearly as effective as the combination."

Cooper says that Selective's solid support of the company's communications efforts is a huge advantage. She reports directly to the CEO and has direct interaction with all senior management.

"We've been fortunate to earn our seat at the table, and we earn that seat every day," she says. Last year was a banner year for Selective, and Cooper says that she likes to think that communications played a role in that success. "We see ourselves as behind the scenes, driving the business," she says. "You can talk about the value of communication all you want, but it comes down to proving your value by delivering results that drive profitable growth."

Dale Thatcher, CFO of Selective, says that Cooper is an important part of the company's senior management team. "She's more than just communications - she's really a strategic partner here," he says. "She really has a good feel for the need for communications and how that fits into making the organization successful."

He adds that Cooper is good at keeping the rest of the senior management team aware of how communications affects the company as a whole. "All of our different processes, procedures, strategic initiatives have some degree of a communications component," he says. "Sharon does a real good job of inserting herself in there and making sure that the rest of us don't forget about that so that we can make sure that it's ultimately successful."

One can tell that Cooper truly enjoys her work just from speaking with her. She talks so passionately about insurance and the various facets of the business that it's easy to see why she's successful at it. "I love what I do," she says emphatically. " I have no plans to leave."

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Sharon Cooper

2000-present

Selective Insurance Group, SVP, director of communications

1996-2000

The Allstate Corporation, director of media relations, corporate relations manager

1991-1996

Insurance News Service, executive director

1984-1991

Television news anchor, producer, reporter

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