EXCLUSIVE | Sandra Stahl, jacobstahl: A year of big losses and small wins


Sandra Stahl, Founding Partner and Managing Director at jacobstahl, has been a highly respected PR professional for more than three decades. She is a published thought leader on PR and communications issues ranging from developments in brand strategy and creativity to cross-functional collaboration and entrepreneurship.

She is also on faculty in the Brand and Integrated Communications master’s degree program at City College of New York and has been a workshop instructor in the Strategic Communications program at Columbia University.

In this exclusive piece for MediaBrief.com, Sandra writes a very personal account of how COVID-19 affected her family, work and her; how she created a flow of wins and about the progress principle and how it helped her in 2020. Read on.

My family suffered a tragic and very personal loss to COVID-19. Ours came very early, in March 2020. It was devastating and shocking and eye-opening to the realities of a virus that swept the world and changed every aspect of life. We were not the only ones; losses of all types piled up for countless families and businesses around the world.

When losses are so big, seemingly impossible to comprehend let alone manage, my focus was to go small. 

I looked for ways to create a steady flow of small wins in business and in my personal life that could deliver a feeling of success and even joy.  

The power of small wins is well documented. In their Harvard Business Review article, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer discovered what they called a progress principle. They described it this way, “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.”

As agencies large and small struggled to keep their business and their staff, we doubled down on delivering a steady stream of small wins for our clients that underscored our value. As a result, plus a little luck, we actually grew our business in 2020: Sandra Stahl

As I was in the market to boost my team’s and my own emotion and motivation, I put the progress principle to the test. My company, jacobstahl, is a public relations agency with a healthcare specialty. Our typical clients range from multinational pharma, diagnostics and biotech companies to start-ups and non-profit organizations.

As agencies large and small struggled to keep their business and their staff, we doubled down on delivering a steady stream of small wins for our clients that underscored our value. As a result, plus a little luck, we actually grew our business in 2020. 

Our ‘small wins’ practice included: 

  • Identifying and pursuing the mid-sized and smaller opportunities for visibility of our clients’ messages, stories and executives. This took patience and some detective work as media headlines were dominated by COVID-19 news.  
  • From these efforts, we found regular openings for our clients resulting in relevant and positive exposure and a solid ROI.
  • Listening. A lot. With clients working from home, without the usual hustle and bustle of meetings and travel, we had the time in phone and video conversations to learn more about what they’re really seeking from the agency and their goals for their brands. We had similar experiences in conversations with stakeholders. From these more extended, more open dialogues, we distilled the insights that drove our strategies and tactics. Every conversation that yielded an a-ha moment was a win.
  • Deeper relationships with our clients were more of a happy benefit than what one would consider a “win.” Maybe it was the exposure of meetings on Zoom and other video platforms during which had a glimpse into each other’s homes, met each other’s children and pets, that created a new intimacy of their challenges, hopes and goals.  

Personally, I knew I needed to find the calm to sleep at night and be clear-headed for work.  

This wasn’t so simple. We live in New York City, far away from family in London who needed us, and in an apartment with limited square footage for grown-up and college-aged children who suddenly moved back home where they needed space to work and study. We were all also isolated from our friends.

Wins of any size were needed; here’s how I found them:   

  • Walking: I upped my mileage to between 7-9 miles/day during 2020. My entire social life revolved around meeting friends for masked walks or we talked to each other on the phone while we each walked separately.
  • Becoming a podcast junkie: I never listened to a podcast before 2020. Now, I can’t get enough. I highly recommend The NYTimes The Daily and anything related to science or presented as a serial on BBC. I feel more informed than ever. (Listen to Sandra Stahl in conversation with Pavan R Chawla on our podcast series The Master’s Voice)
  • mookie-rotated.jpegLearning a new skillMany people found their inner painter, baker or knitter during the lockdown. I became a dog walker. Now every evening at 8:30, I walk a very sweet, old pooch called Mookie owned by a couple in their 70s who need the help. 

Do I feel my progress principle test was a success? Absolutely. 

In a year like 2020, that’s no small thing.   

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