Disney’s Brand Protector and Power Behind the Power Is Stepping Down

LOS ANGELES — Forget the looming retirement of Robert A. Iger, the Walt Disney Company’s longtime alpha, and whether his successor, Bob Chapek, has what it takes to continue Disney’s spectacular run.

The real question involving Disney’s senior leadership team is: Who will replace the departing Zenia B. Mucha, the power behind the power?

For 19 years, Ms. Mucha has been uniquely responsible for protecting and polishing the vaunted Disney brand. As the company’s combative chief communications officer, Ms. Mucha (pronounced MOO-kah) commands a 500-person global media relations team; rides herd on the company’s philanthropic and environmental initiatives; and oversees the Walt Disney Archives and D23, a Disney fan club of her creation that has more than one million active members.

On Tuesday, Ms. Mucha, 65, announced that she would not renew her lucrative contract ($4.9 million in total 2020 compensation) and would leave Disney early next year.

Ms. Mucha — who has been variously described during her career in politics and at Disney as “warrior princess,” “razor-sharp and acid-tongued,” “mother crocodile” and “director of revenge” — has influence at Disney that extends far beyond her official duties. As other C-suite executives have cycled through the company over the decades, Ms. Mucha has endured to become leadership team bedrock, giving her a voice in nearly every major corporate decision. In 2016, for instance, when Disney was thinking about buying Twitter, she was against it. (Too much porn, she cautioned.) Mr. Iger passed, later citing the platform’s “nastiness.”

Lately, Ms. Mucha’s job has taken on a difficult new dimension. Disney’s family-friendly brand is meant to be for everyone. But neutrality in today’s hyperpartisan world is almost impossible. Many employees and customers want and expect companies like Disney to be advocates for progressive issues. Another faction is just as adamant that Mickey Mouse and Buzz Lightyear steer clear of politics and hot-button cultural topics.

Walking that line — while protecting Disney at all costs — has forced Ms. Mucha to make decisions that have, more and more, cast her as a villain. Disney, for instance, did not comment in April when Hollywood stars and some other media companies publicly condemned Georgia Republicans for passing a law to restrict voting access. For Disney in that moment, she determined that the negatives of commenting outweighed the positives. In other instances, she has made the opposite call, adding Disney’s voice in support of issues such as L.G.B.T.Q. rights and racial justice.

“For many of us, the challenges of living and working in an era of lockdowns and quarantines brought an unexpected hidden blessing: the opportunity to gain new perspective about what’s truly ‘essential,’ what matters most, and how we each want to move forward in light of these insights,” she said in an internal memo that was viewed by The New York Times. “After a long career in roles that have required a 24/7 commitment, what I want most these days is the freedom to focus on other priorities — all the things I always wanted to do with family and friends but simply never had time for.”

Disney has started a search for a successor. Although Ms. Mucha has strong lieutenants — one is Paul Roeder, who started in 2001 as Ms. Mucha’s assistant and now runs communications at Walt Disney Studios — there are no obvious internal candidates.

“I see her as one of the great navigators who no longer needs to study a map,” the ABC News journalist Diane Sawyer said in a telephone interview. “She can rocket to the center of an issue and help you see it with total clarity.”

Ms. Mucha was born to Ukrainian parents in a village in northern Poland and lived in a house without plumbing until she was 9. In 1965, her family immigrated to New York City, where her father became a gravedigger at Green-Wood Cemetery (and later a groundskeeper) and her mother was a night custodian at the United Nations. In her late teens, Ms. Mucha started her public relations career at Gimbel’s department store.

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She can be a confounding mix of extremes.

When reporters write stories that she thinks are unfair, she comes spinning at them like teeth on a chain saw. Some journalists, in particular those in the Hollywood trade press, complain that she can be a punitive tyrant. Threats to cut off access for future articles pepper her tirades. “She barks. She bites,” a 2000 newspaper profile of her began.

In the next breath, however, Ms. Mucha can turn gentle, offering (insisting, demanding) to have jars of her homemade chicken noodle soup sent to your home if she detects a cold coming on. Some of her closest friends are reporters who interacted with her — and have the scars to prove it — during her pre-Disney political communications career.

After Gimbel’s, she worked for Alfonse D’Amato, the former Republican senator from New York, and later served as the director of communications for Gov. George E. Pataki of New York, also a Republican. Ms. Mucha became the communications chief at ABC in 2001 and ascended to Disney the next year, working for Michael D. Eisner, who was chief executive until 2005.

One of the biggest challenges of her tenure came in 2004, when Comcast made a hostile takeover bid for Disney. At the time, Ms. Mucha was using a wheelchair after shattering her ankle in an accident. She was simultaneously dealing with a theme park death; an employee dressed as Pluto had been killed by a parade float.

“What I always got from her was brutal honesty, which is extraordinarily valuable,” Mr. Iger said in an interview. “You want someone who never cowers in the face of power or in the face of a powerful C.E.O. I didn’t always agree with her. We often argued. But the results speak for themselves.”

He added: “She is unrivaled in times of crisis, certainly. However, when we had good news to announce, she was wonderfully strategic on that too.”

Ms. Mucha declined an interview request and tried to convince a reporter not to write this article at all, arguing that her departure was not significant news. She was undoubtedly mindful of the fact that a story would add to a ticklish narrative: A notable number of important Disney executives are following Mr. Iger out the door.

They include Alan N. Braverman, Disney’s top lawyer, who also announced his retirement on Tuesday; Mr. Braverman, 74, has been general counsel since 2003. The leaders of Disney’s art-film division decamped last month. So did Disney’s human resources chief.

In an internal email of their own on Tuesday, Mr. Chapek and Mr. Iger jointly praised Mr. Braverman and Ms. Mucha for playing a “pivotal role” in the acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm and certain 21st Century Fox assets. They also cited the opening of Disney’s first theme park on the Chinese mainland. Rather miraculously, the Shanghai Disney Resort debuted in 2016 without a hitch — though it coincided with a tragedy in Florida, when a toddler at Walt Disney World was dragged into the water by an alligator and drowned, requiring Ms. Mucha to work around the clock to manage two major stories on two sides of the world.

As Disney has grown into the world’s largest entertainment company, with 203,000 employees, 14 theme parks (combined annual attendance: 156 million), four cruise ships, six movie studios and a dozen major TV networks, Ms. Mucha’s ability to control leaks of internal information has lessened. The rise of social media has been a boon, allowing Disney to directly communicate with hundreds of millions of followers, but it has also made it harder for her to wield access as a cudgel.

In 2017, Ms. Mucha barred The Los Angeles Times from press screenings of Disney movies following an investigation by the newspaper into the media giant’s business dealings in Anaheim, Calif. The move prompted swift blowback on Twitter, however, and Disney reversed itself. (Disney cited “productive conversations” with the newspaper’s leaders as its reason for restoring access.)

But Ms. Mucha continues to exert absolute control over one thing: whether Mr. Iger should ever be photographed wearing Mickey Mouse ears, an image that she fears could be used by media outlets to make him look silly.

“Over my dead body,” she once told a reporter.

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