A couple years ago at Disneyland, my family and I had one of those guided tours that lets you cut the lines. Throughout the day, I peppered our guide with questions like how often people die at the park (less than you’d think) and which celebrity is the biggest pain in the ass (his answer: Mariah Carey, who once allegedly directed him to purchase churros for her and her entourage—a big faux pas; the guides are not waiters—and then rejected hers because it wasn’t warm enough). When I mentioned that I worked in media and often dealt with Disney’s corporate communications team, he was super impressed. “You know Zenia?” the guide asked, somewhat incredulously. “She’s like the only person who can tell Bob Iger what to do.”
Zenia Mucha has that kind of sway at Disney. Groomed in cutthroat New York politics, she has lorded over her 500 person comms team and meticulously protected Iger’s reputation for almost 20 years. Even top Disney executives fear her wrath, and journalists covering the company often commiserate over her screaming phone calls and vengeful emails. The Times had a great send-off piece in which she’s referred to as Disney’s brand protector and “director of revenge.”
I’ve had my own run-ins with Zenia over the years, like when she vehemently denied the company was looking into behavior issues with animation chief John Lasseter, just days before Lasseter apologized for “missteps” and went on a sabbatical from which he wouldn’t return. She can also be gracious and fun to talk to—as she was yesterday when I congratulated her after she announced she’ll step down when Iger leaves at the end of 2021—and it’s incredible how effectively she has advocated for the company.
Disney is unique in corporate America as both a relentless money-making machine and a brand that means a lot to the millions of people who have grown up with its products. Because of that uniqueness and the size and diversity of the company, the Disney job is considered the apex of corporate communications in entertainment. It doesn’t hurt that Mucha made $7.6 million in 2019 (less in 2020 because top execs were asked to forgo bonuses).
So who’s getting the gig? Bob Chapek’s former spokesperson in the consumer products division, Tasia Filippatos, is said to be happy with a new role in London and not interested in the top job, so the field is open. Mucha will be spearheading the search, and a headhunter firm has yet to be retained. If she’s got a person to recommend to Chapek, she’s not revealing it to me. So I talked to other Disney insiders and P.R. pros to offer some ideas on likely candidates and people who I think might be a good fit in such an influential role:
- Paul Roeder — The internal favorite, he currently heads P.R. for Disney Studios, knows the content piece and how Hollywood operates—and, importantly, enjoys a strong relationship with journalists and with Mucha—but has less experience with Wall Street complexities.
- Julie Henderson — Evan Spiegel’s chief communications officer at Snap has a great reputation and relationships at Disney via her prior job running comms for 21st Century Fox and the Murdochs. But she’s heavily incentivized with Snap stock and has told friends she’s not interested in leaving.
- Jay Carney — Amazon’s top P.R. exec and an Obama press secretary (and former political reporter) would be considered a coup for Chapek, and incoming Amazon C.E.O. Andy Jassey may want his own person. But Carney is also said to be happy where he is.
- Nick Clegg — Facebook’s public policy leader and a former British deputy prime minister certainly has experience managing controversies, which is a must for Disney. But the Zuckerberg stink might reek especially bad at the Happiest Place on Earth.
- Jill Hazelbaker–Top P.R. jobs at Google and Uber would make her an automatic candidate, especially as Disney increasingly envisions itself as a tech company.
- Melissa Zukerman — Zukerman co-runs perhaps the only L.A.-based corporate P.R. firm that successfully straddles Hollywood and Wall Street. She’s never run a big company operation, but Mucha likes her and she has a long history and strong relationship with Kevin Feige, perhaps Disney’s most important employee.
- Christian Muirhead — Ari Emanuel’s longtime spokesperson at Endeavor now oversees a 100-person team that runs the gamut in investor relations, film, TV, music, live experiences and sports—just like Disney, but on a much smaller scale.
- Maria Cordona — A CNN commentator, multicultural public affairs expert, and former Hillary Clinton spokesperson, Cordona is often discussed for top corporate communications jobs. Yet Disney insiders say that in the current climate, the company likely won’t touch anyone deemed too political. That could eliminate other potential candidates with backgrounds similar to Mucha’s, or even current Biden press secretary Jen Psaki, who has said she will step down next year.