- Disney CEO Bob Chapek apologized to staff for the company’s long silence on Florida “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
- Disney faced blowback from employees and is now pausing all political donations in Florida.
- One insider said Chapek failed to put his employees first and lacks former CEO Bob Iger’s instincts.
Call it a casting issue.
Disney CEO Bob Chapek issued a full-throated apology to staff on Friday after a weeks-long communications debacle over proposed Florida legislation dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
In the email Chapek wrote that the company would stop all political donations in Florida and increase support for LGBTQ+ advocacy efforts. “You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down. I am sorry,” he wrote.
Chapek and the company have been under fire for initially staying silent on the bill, then issuing a March 4 statement saying Disney would let its products speak for themselves, a stance reiterated in a memo to staff from Chapek on Monday. Chapek’s memo expressed support for LGBTQ+ staffers while underscoring that a corporate statement about the bill would not be forthcoming and that “the best way for our company to bring about lasting change is through the inspiring content we produce, the welcoming culture we create, and the diverse community organizations we support.”
This series of communications created confusion and outrage both inside and outside the company, according to five people familiar with the situation and with the inner workings of Disney.
Chapek hoped to calm the storm when he addressed the annual shareholders meeting on Wednesday and explained that Disney had opposed the bill — which would ban discussions of sexuality and gender in classrooms in kindergarten to third grade and would allow parents to sue schools if staff members facilitate those conversations — all along.
The company has been under siege by gay rights advocates who are angry that it took Disney weeks to voice its dissent over the legislation, which was passed by the Florida Senate and sent to Governor Ron DeSantis on Tuesday. The company is also under attack from the right with DeSantis slamming “woke” Disney in a video aired Thursday on Fox News.
Chapek’s apology letter caps an extraordinarily intense few days for the new C-suite leaders at Disney, including company chairman Susan Arnold, who is gay. Arnold succeeded CEO Bob Iger in the lead director’s seat in December. Chapek is two years into his role as CEO but after Iger’s long goodbye — he stayed on as executive chairman through 2021 — he has hired fresh lead executives working on corporate affairs, legal, and human resources.
With Disney’s skillful PR maestro and Iger consigliere Zenia Mucha now departed, Chapek is taking advice from newly appointed corporate affairs chief Geoff Morrell, a onetime Pentagon press secretary drafted from London where he was a top executive of oil company BP.
“There was much internal strife and outrage that there wasn’t going to be a statement” about the Florida bill, said one person familiar with Disney discussions in recent weeks. This person said Morrell had been largely leaving the day-to-day corporate communications functions to others while he looks to replace Mucha, who was chief communications officer.
This person also said company leadership had ignored internal voices with a different view of how the communications should have been handled and that outside crisis communications firm Brunswick is working with Chapek. This person was surprised that the company, as the Orlando area’s largest employer and a major driver of Florida tourism, was initially silent over the Florida bill — especially since Disney had worked back in 2016 to fight Georgia’s so-called “religious freedom” bill that would allow faith-based groups to deny services, including marriage, to same-sex couples.
With Iger having denounced the Florida bill in a February tweet, and with dissent at Disney growing, Morrell and Chapek were forced to put out a statement explaining the silence. But a second person familiar with the situation said Chapek’s Monday memo that did so was a mistake.
By the time the annual meeting on Wednesday came around, Disney was forced to declare its stance on the legislation. Chapek opened the meeting with a statement about Disney’s opposition to the bill, saying he’d been in touch with DeSantis, who assured him that the law “would not be weaponized,” Chapek said, against the LGBTQ community.
Chapek explained that Disney opposed the bill and had been working behind the scenes to help change the legislation. But DeSantis’ office pushed back saying they’d heard nothing until a call. Chapek’s proposed $5 million donation to Human Rights Campaign, also announced at the shareholders meeting, was rejected by the organization.
A third person familiar with the situation defended Disney’s approach: “Most companies get grief for lip service rather than action,” this person said. “Disney was acting on this but reluctant to speak about it because it would undermine the action.”
Disney must walk a fine line between upsetting customers and stakeholders of different political persuasions and making content with broad appeal. However, one former senior Disney executive told Insider, “If you are CEO of Disney, your number-one priority has to be employees. Chapek doesn’t have the instincts of Iger.” Disney employs many high-profile LGBTQ+ rights advocates both behind and in front of the camera.
After the annual meeting Wednesday, one Disney PR executive, Ryan Aguirre, tweeted, “I love Disney. A lot. And getting to work for them has literally been a dream come true. My heart is broken right now.”
An employee letter later Wednesday claimed Disney’s hugely successful Pixar unit had been forced to cut, or never include, LGBTQIA+ characters and themes from its movies. “Disney did not take a hard stance in support of the LGBTQIA+ community, they instead attempted to placate ‘both sides’ — and did not condemn hateful messages shared during the question and answer portion of the meeting,” the letter read.
Disney’s ABC is set later this month to air “The Oscars,” where the Florida bill will likely be a topic in acceptance speeches.