How I Got Here: Adrienne O’Hara, Gap Inc’s Head of Communications and Culture
“The hallmark of a successful career is good work, not a title.”
Many of us found our way to public relations through meandering paths or happenstance. Not so with Adrienne O’Hara, Gap Inc.’s head of comms and culture. Adrienne knew exactly what she wanted to do when she walked into college.
“I knew that I wanted to work in communications of some sort. I knew I wanted to be a storyteller, but not necessarily a journalist. And I knew that I wanted to work with big brands and companies,” said O’Hara on a recent ‘How I got There’ edition of the PRSA Silicon Valley’s #FridayForum.
O’Hara double majored in journalism and communications, and after graduation, took a job with the Philadelphia 76’ers. But beyond that early certainty that PR was the right path for her, O’Hara admits that the rest was a lot less straightforward. Her advice to comms pros is not to over-plan their careers and to keep an open mind to the fact that some of the best and most rewarding work might not come in the guise of a lofty title and advancement may not always mean changing jobs.
“Never wait for a new job to change what your scope might be. You have the power to make your own experiences within your current space, and that’s how you start to build a really dynamic career experience,” she said.
Adventures in consumer PR
It turned out that sports PR was not her first love, so O’Hara soon joined Toys’R’Us, where she would spend her next 15 years climbing up the corporate ladder during an tumultuous time for the company.
“I walked in thinking I was going to be doing consumer PR — what do we want to sell, how do we sell it, how do we make people excited about the brand. One of the first things I had to manage was a complete global crisis for the company and for the entire industry involving the recall of millions and millions of products.”
After starting off on the crisis hotline, O’Hara continued navigating communications around some of the most challenging moments in the history of Toys’R’Us: rapid expansion followed by a massive contraction, and eventually a bankruptcy filing.
In 2017, O’Hara joined Old Navy, moving across the country with her family, including a seven-month-old baby. She was attracted to Gap Inc’s “constellation of amazing brands” and emotional staying power that went beyond the transactional retail experience.
O’Hara credits her family and strong support network for enabling her to make this leap into the unknown, which subsequently led to her current role. In 2020, at the onset of the pandemic, she stepped up to support a new female CEO and all company communications, employee experience and branding, as well as business communications for Gap Inc.’s purpose-led lifestyle brands: Old Navy, Gap, Banana Republic and Athleta.
Key qualities for new talent
When interviewing talent to join her team, O’Hara looks for two key qualities: curiosity and storytelling skills. She views curiosity as the engine that drives continuous improvement at all levels of the profession, from first entrants to the job market, to seasoned professionals.
O’Hara says excellent storytelling starts with the ability to listen for those most important nuggets and to hone in on them to deliver compelling stories, regardless of the medium.
“I’ve been in the workforce for a really long time, and whether you have the top job or an entry level job, I think those skill sets are the same and equally important,” she said.
O’Hara’s advice to PR pros:
- Don’t worry too much about architecting your career from one level to another. Instead, focus on doing your job exceptionally well and taking opportunities as they come to you.
- Surround yourself with people that you really enjoy spending a lot of time with.