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Bob Iger, outgoing chairman of The Walt Disney Co., is known to millions as one of the most admired executives in the world. Far fewer have heard of Zenia Mucha, but for Iger’s entire tenure at the helm of Disney, she has played a major part in crafting that smooth-as-silk image, and she has guarded it with Kraken-level ferocity.
In a company that has been nowhere near gender parity in the top executive ranks, Mucha — who just announced plans to leave her post as Disney’s chief communications officer after some 20 years — has been by far the most powerful female player at the company, albeit behind the scenes.
In reporting on her retirement announcement, The New York Times noted that some reporters see Mucha as a “punitive tyrant” but added that she can be “gentle, offering (insisting, demanding) to have jars of her homemade chicken noodle soup sent to your home if she detects a cold coming on.” I never tasted the soup. More than once, I tasted the wrath.
I first encountered Mucha when she went to work for then-Disney chairman and CEO Michael Eisner. Some press relations professionals retain a modicum of detachment from the company they serve. I never saw a glimmer of that in Mucha. I have long thought it revealing that Iger chose to keep Mucha in place despite her hostile relationships with many in the press. But in the conflicts that arose during the Iger era, it has been hard to tell where Iger ended and Mucha began.
No point was too minute to contest. In one email, sent to our editor, she wrote: “Not sure why you quote Bob saying ‘gonna’ instead of ‘going to.’ He doesn’t speak that way. Please correct it. Thanks.”
It’s fair to say Mucha — or was it Iger, or a combo platter? — could be vindictive in ways that did not seem to serve her — or him, or them. (Not for nothing was she dubbed the “director of revenge” in her earlier life in New York politics.) The most memorable example came in 2017, when Disney banned The Los Angeles Times from screenings for writing a worthy but wonky series on the company’s business dealings with the city of Anaheim. With that, a local story went wide as other outlets, including The New York Times, vowed to boycott screenings in solidarity. Disney backed down.
My personal favorite experience with this trait dates back to fall 2004 — the Eisner era — when I was in chilly Georgetown, Delaware, covering the Disney shareholder trial for NPR. Shareholders were suing over Eisner’s decision to fire Mike Ovitz as Disney president after only 14 unhappy months, infamously paying him $140 million to go away.
When I got to the courthouse, Dominick Dunne was among the sizable press contingent, representing Vanity Fair. (We had been colleagues when I was a contributing editor at the magazine.) I had written many words — a whole book in fact — about Eisner’s increasingly imperious management of Disney.
It was clear that Mucha regarded me as a real enemy of the people. Eisner still seemed to have some sense of humor about it all. When he emerged from the courthouse after a turn on the witness stand, he was met by rows of photographers. He scanned the situation and said, “You want a picture? I’ll give you a picture.” Walking over to where Dunne and I stood chatting, Eisner threw his arms around both of us as the cameras snapped away.
It was really just a media-world joke — everyone laughed, but it wasn’t a photo any news organization would really run. Mucha wasn’t so sure. When I arrived at the courthouse the next day, Dunne gestured at me frantically and pulled me away from the scrum. Mucha had asked him to dinner the night before, he said, only to hiss at him, “You can’t run that photo! And if you do, you have to cut her out!” Dunne was much more annoyed than amused, while I saw it the other way around. He vowed that he would not only run the photo, uncropped, in Vanity Fair but relate the story. I doubted that he really would. He did.
I’m sure Eisner didn’t like bad press, but Iger seemed to be far more invested in the careful management of his image. It generally worked, but not always. There was a 2011 attempt to burnish his already bright halo, while speculation swirled about his possible political ambitions. Disney sent staff a video, ostensibly to commemorate the company’s support for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York, but it seemed more like a tribute to Iger. It featured a testimonial from a seemingly emotional Diane Sawyer, who praised Iger’s leadership before adding, “Let’s say what it really is — courage. Future.” Then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg weighed in, calling Iger “a great leader” and “a great American.”
Naturally, this was forwarded around and prompted some chatter and mockery in Hollywood. I wrote a piece that asked: Was this video commemorating the museum or something else? Naturally, Mucha was livid. Whether she was the brains behind that seeming infomercial, we’ll never know. Iger must have approved it; certainly, it seems no one warned him to tone it down.
Sometimes, Mucha’s reactions seemed zealous to the point of irrationality. In 2017, I wrote about the alleged misconduct of John Lasseter, then the powerful head of Pixar and Disney Animation. Allegations included “grabbing, kissing [and] making comments about physical attributes” of employees. Even as we published, Lasseter issued a memo to staff acknowledging “painful” conversations and unspecified “missteps,” while Disney issued a statement saying, “We are committed to maintaining an environment in which all employees are respected and empowered to do their best work. We appreciate John’s candor and sincere apology and fully support his sabbatical.”
That sober tone was entirely gone in April 2018, when I wrote a follow-up article exploring Lasseter’s history in greater depth and pondering whether he would resume his job at Disney. When I asked for comment, the company fired back a statement: “THR chose to credit only anonymous sources in its original character assassination story and then was forced to issue a major factual correction that its entire story hinged on. THR is doing it again based on nothing more than anonymous sources and rumor-mongering.”
Rumor-mongering? What was Lasseter apologizing for, then? Why was he on a leave from which he would never return? (He now runs Skydance Animation.) And then there was the fact that there had never been a correction because we stood by the reporting. Our editor pointed that out, but Disney wouldn’t budge. So THR published Disney’s statement followed by an editor’s note reading, “No correction was ever issued.”
For obvious reasons, I’m not a fan of this scorched-earth approach to public relations, but in the end, Mucha was effective. She couldn’t have done it, of course, if Iger were so not thoroughly presentable and if he had not made some brilliant business moves.
But as he moves toward retirement, he is not only one of the world’s most highly regarded executives, the New York Times even dubbed him “Hollywood’s nicest CEO.” For all of that, Mucha deserves credit, though you can be sure she will never publicly claim it.
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