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Running Disney's Word Machine

March 24, 2004|Michael Cieply | Times Staff Writer

As one of New York Gov. George E. Pataki's most trusted aides in the 1990s, Zenia B. Mucha's in-your-face style led Albany wags to tag her "The Warrior Princess," "Gov. Zenia" and even "Director of Revenge."

Now Walt Disney Co. and the media swarm around it are beginning to get the picture.

Razor-sharp and acid-tongued, Mucha, 47, was named Disney's chief communications officer less than two years ago, after starting with the company's troubled ABC unit. In short order, she has carved out a place as one of Chief Executive Michael Eisner's closest advisors in a brutal battle with those who would unseat him.

She has turned her communications department into a powerful internal force, while tapping old political connections to shore up her boss' image and position.

Under Mucha (pronounced MOO-ka), Disney scrapped a posture in which queries were often dismissed with a flat "no comment." Executives now are pushed to challenge all comers -- although few are a match for the frequently profane chief communicator, who is quick to unleash her inner pit bull on critics and the reporters who give them voice.

"If you're not getting heard and there's no chance in creation of getting heard, you have to do that," said New York public relations veteran Robert Dilenschneider. Still, he said, there's a risk that biting back will provoke more hostility: "It's better not to do it, if you don't have to."

Investors got a taste of Mucha's pushback before the company's March 3 annual meeting, which saw a stunning 43% no-confidence vote for Eisner. When proxy advisor Glass, Lewis & Co. counseled clients to withhold support from the Disney chief, Mucha publicly lashed it as "an upstart company that is trying to grab publicity."

Glass Lewis Chief Executive Gregory P. Taxin said the remark soured some investors.

"They've been ... lobbing bombs at anybody who disagreed with them," he said. "It left people with a bad taste in their mouths."

Shortly before, Mucha appeared to get her fingers burned by some negative campaigning. A Feb. 22 New York Times Magazine story by Deborah Solomon said Mucha e-mailed about 20 articles chronicling shortcomings by firms associated with former director Roy E. Disney, who has led the campaign against Eisner.

Mucha's associates said Solomon had requested research material on the former Disney board member and Norman Rockwell, about whom she is writing a book -- a contention that, in Disney's case, the author disputes.

"I certainly did not ask Zenia to send me negative articles," Solomon said. She described the outpouring of material on Roy Disney as "a Soviet-like deluge of propaganda going back to 1979."

Mucha declined requests to be interviewed for this story. But associates described her as a passionate, fiercely loyal partisan whose goal was to make reporters think twice before undertaking stories that might hurt Disney -- many of them, in the company's view, unfairly slanted.

"You can talk until you're blue in the face" without getting a fair shake, said Kevin Brockman, who works for Mucha as a communications executive at ABC. Mucha, he said, "will confront until the story is written, and then go on to the next one."

Mucha's style proved a match for Eisner, who closely monitors stories about the company and communicates with her constantly. "He e-mails her all the time," said one person who has watched the two contend with unwelcome coverage.

Communications executives throughout Disney meet weekly to check signals, and send their views upstairs via Mucha, who belongs to an inner circle that includes Disney President Robert Iger, chief strategic officer Peter Murphy, corporate counsel Alan Braverman, finance chief Tom Stagg, synergy chief Chris Curtin and few others.

Several Disney executives credited Mucha with stemming media leaks and schooling division heads on how to showcase successes and stay "on message" during the ongoing assault by dissident shareholders and an unsolicited takeover bid by Comcast Corp.

"I adore her, and she's been as tough on me as she has on you," said ABC executive Susan Lyne. A former journalist, Lyne said Mucha has pushed operating executives to take control of media encounters, not simply respond to questions.

Mucha, who served as Republican governor Pataki's de facto chief of staff, has occasionally used political back channels in her fights on Eisner's behalf.

In February, for instance, she helped broker an arrangement under which Disney retained consultant Pat Lynch, a Democrat who often crossed swords with her in Albany. Lobbied by Lynch, New York City's Democratic comptroller voted public pension fund shares in favor of Eisner's reelection to the board, breaking a string of embarrassing thumbs-down votes by other public funds.

Lynch later called New York's state pension officials, who withheld support from Eisner at the meeting. This week, Democratic state Comptroller Alan Hevesi said he was no longer calling for Eisner's immediate ouster.

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