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Inside Disney’s Search to Replace Zenia Mucha: Does a New Era Demand a New Kind of Communications Chief?

Scarlett Johansson has thrown Disney into a full-on PR crisis by suing the entertainment giant over the release of “Black Widow,” and by a luck of timing, the entertainment giant is short one communications leader.

Chief Communications Officer Zenia Mucha, tough enough to have earned such nicknames as “The Warrior Princess” and “Director of Revenge,” has announced she’ll depart in early 2022 after 20 years in the powerful role overseeing a team of 500 people. That makes the longtime and well-compensated executive a lame duck at a time when Disney badly needs expert media guidance.

Mucha was Disney Executive Chairman Bob Iger’s longtime right-hand aide in managing difficult PR situations. Whoever takes the job will have to establish a similar relationship for the apparently less media-savvy Bob Chapek, who assumed the CEO role last year.

Although she is technically still in the job, “Zenia is checked out,” one former Disney executive told TheWrap, pointing to the company’s harshly worded response last week to the Johansson lawsuit, which called the actress “callous” for suing over profit participation during the COVID-19 crisis — an oddly aggressive slam of an A-list star from a company that laid off 32,000 workers last year due to the pandemic. “She doesn’t have any investment in Chapek,” the individual added.

Mucha’s retirement plans would have had Hollywood buzzing no matter what — however, recent speculation that Iger would have handled the Johansson situation more smoothly (and more privately) adds another element to the discussion of who might step in for her.

Mucha herself has acknowledged behind the scenes that it could be tough to find a taker for this job, despite the fact that it paid her $4.9 million in 2020 (down from a whopping $7.6 million in 2019 before top Disney execs took pandemic-year cuts in pay and bonuses).

How hard is it to fill the role internally? Around the time of Disney’s high-profile acquisition of much of 21st Century Fox Corp. in 2019, Mucha wooed a candidate for an executive job and hinted at grooming an heir. “No one here wants the job. I don’t have a successor,” Mucha told the executive.

Names of other top Disney communications officers in various departments are naturally floating around in the discussion of who might take the place of Mucha in what is arguably the most important communications post in Hollywood.

Paul Roeder (Getty Images)

The inside name that seems to pop up most often is Paul Roeder, who started as an assistant to Mucha in 2000 and rose through the ranks to become Disney’s current senior vice president of global communications. Roeder declined to comment. An individual close to Disney said those who are floating Roeder’s name “don’t know what they are talking about” in terms of whether Roeder is being seriously considered for the post.

Also on the watch list is Alannah Hall-Smith, currently senior vice president of communications and public affairs, who oversees the domestic and international communications strategy across Disney Parks, Experiences and Products. That speculation most likely stems from the fact that Chapek previously served as chairman of Disney’s Department of Parks, Experiences and Productions, so he maintains a strong connection to that team.

Alannah Hall-Smith

Many Hollywood insiders expect Disney to look outside of its own ranks to fill the job, with CBS EVP of communications Chris Ender named as one possibility.

However, even though the current PR snafu is all about star-studio relations, several industry experts told TheWrap that a changing entertainment landscape may call for an executive search that takes Disney outside of Hollywood, possibly tapping communicationss execs with experience in technology, as Disney and other entertainment companies become increasingly involved with tech companies like Apple, Amazon and Facebook.

“If they promote somebody within the entertainment business, it says, ‘Guess what? We still see our future as a bigger version of the same,'” Stephen Galloway, a veteran entertainment journalist who now serves as dean of Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, said. “If they reach out and get somebody with big tech background, that will say they see themselves as competition with Google and Apple.”

For that reason, Galloway as well as others cite Jay Carney, senior vice president of corporate affairs at Amazon and a former Obama White House Press Secretary (2011-2014) with a long list of distinguished journalism posts including Washington bureau chief for Time magazine as a contender to watch.

Jay Carney (Getty Images)

Another possibility: Facebook’s comms chief Nick Clegg, a former British deputy prime minister to Prime Minister David Cameron. Also on Galloway and others’ list is current White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, who has said she plans to retire from the post next year.

These candidates also hark back to Mucha’s own political background. Before joining Disney, she served as director of communications and senior policy adviser to George Pataki, a Republican who served as governor of New York from 1995 to 2006. She previously held the post of communications director for United States Senator Alfonse D’Amato, managing his successful re-election campaigns in 1986 and 1992.

“I think we are at an inflection point,” said one entertainment media and marketing expert who asked not to be named. “The Disney we know now, with the George Lucas franchise and Pixar and the Marvel Universe, Hulu and Disney+, is not the Disney of 10 or 15 years ago. This is a very different animal.”

The expert said that Mucha has proven herself capable of keeping up with the expansion of Disney into the streaming world, but added that a new comms leader in 2021 will need to be fluent in global trends, tech-ready and as attuned to political and cultural shifts as to stock market swings.

Both Mucha and Roeder were listed as contacts on the scathing July 29 statement from Disney attributable to a “Disney spokesperson” blasting Johansson in the wake of her lawsuit against Disney over profit participation in “Black Widow” due to its concurrent release in theaters and on Disney+. Experts say anyone who replaces Mucha will have to be prepared for problems on a more global scale.

One entertainment media expert cautioned that a presence as strong as Mucha’s can make it harder to think outside the box when it comes to hiring. “When somebody has been really, really successful, people believe that’s the only way to be successful, so they look for a carbon copy,” he said. “The Disney brand is so strong and so global, sometimes when you have brands like that, there’s a fear of breaking something. It’ll be interesting to see if they look for a replacement that’s exactly like her.”

Even though Mucha and other Disney representatives did not respond to a request for comment on the search, Hollywood insiders agree that for a job this big, an official executive head-hunt must be underway — and will be no easy task. One individual said that in today’s Hollywood a search will demand presenting a diverse slate of candidates, not just insider favorites.

Mucha also refused comment for a recent New York Times profile following the announcement of her departure, arguing that it was not “significant news.” However, Iger spoke highly of her strength in the role at Disney. “What I always got from her was brutal honesty, which is extraordinarily valuable,” Iger told the Times. “You want someone who never cowers in the face of power or in the face of a powerful CEO. I didn’t always agree with her. We often argued. But the results speak for themselves. She is unrivaled in times of crisis, certainly. However, when we had good news to announce, she was wonderfully strategic on that, too.”

Mucha has won praise from outsiders as well. “She is somebody who has worked as loyally as possible and has been exposed to every facet of the business as it’s been evolving,” said John Wentworth, a veteran entertainment executive who now serves as a communications strategist and consultant. “Those are tough shoes to fill, and she filled them perfectly.” 

One might get a different assessment of Mucha’s “success” from members of the press, who are more likely to describe her as being as bullying, uncooperative and wildly protective of Iger.

Certainly one question on the table is whether anyone could nurture the same strong bond that Mucha had with him. In his 2019 autobiography “The Ride of a Lifetime,” Iger characterizes Mucha as someone who was unafraid to stand up to him. “She’s tough, she’ll tell me straight to my face when she thinks I’m making a mistake, and she always has the best interests of the company at heart,” Iger wrote.

In the New York Times profile, Mucha said she would never allow Iger to be photographed wearing Mickey Mouse ears. “Over my dead body,” she said.

The Hollywood Reporter’s Kim Masters honored Mucha’s announced departure with a love-not-love letter to Mucha, detailing a litany of perceived slights over the years but including some faint praise by citing Mucha’s “scorched earth (but effective) approach” to dealing with journalists.

However, Galloway said coddling journalists is not as important as it was when Mucha joined Disney in 2001 as senior vice president of communications for the ABC Broadcast Group and the American Broadcasting Company.

In 2021, “this job is not about having a drink with a reporter from the trades,” Galloway said. “This is about setting strategy and style as it relates to global audiences and global leaders. You need somebody massively more sophisticated than they ever had in these jobs before. It takes someone who knows how to handle the State Department, the CIA and the White House, not someone who’s used to dealing with a crisis like a kid being gobbled by an alligator.

In his 2019 autobiography, Iger called the day an alligator killed 2-year-old Lane Graves at Disney World the hardest day of his career. When the incident occurred, Iger and his executive team were in China for the opening of Shanghai Disneyland. Iger has credited Mucha for tracking down a phone number so Iger could speak with the grieving parents.

Sharon Waxman contributed to this report.

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