Six weeks after his all-powerful predecessor left the building, Disney chief executive Bob Chapek appeared to be coming into his own, thrilling investors last month with news that the group’s streaming business was booming and its US theme parks were mounting an impressive post-pandemic recovery.
By week 10 of the Chapek era, however, he was embroiled in a raging public relations crisis as he tried to navigate a path between the Florida governor’s “anti-woke” crusade and the concerns of Disney’s own LGBTQ+ employees. Adding insult to injury, the controversy highlighted the deft political touch of Bob Iger, the man who handed Chapek the keys to the Magic Kingdom — and whose shadow he is seeking to escape.
At issue was Disney’s position on a Florida bill aimed at preventing discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity at primary schools. Disney’s LGBTQ+ employees saw the legislation, labelled the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by opponents, as the opening act in a broader attack on their rights.
With 66,000 employees in Florida, Disney has a lot of political weight and its LGBTQ+ workers wanted Chapek to throw it around. But the company kept quiet.
Chapek has said Disney was working behind the scenes to kill the bill. But while that was happening, Iger went public with his opposition, tweeting that “if passed, this bill will put vulnerable, young LGBTQ people in jeopardy”.
Suddenly, Chapek’s silence was more conspicuous. After calling a meeting with a small group of LGBTQ+ employees who were upset that he had not openly opposed the legislation, he sent a 900-word memo to staff last week detailing why fighting the bill in public would be counterproductive.
The outcry from employees was swift, with critics deriding his contention that Disney’s inspiring content was the best way to effect social change.
He reversed course two days later in another memo that failed to satisfy his critics and at the end of the week issued yet another in which he apologised and pledged to be a better advocate for LGBTQ+ employees.
“You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down. I am sorry,” Chapek wrote. Finally, he had struck the right note.
As a 29-year veteran of Disney, Chapek knows its wholesome, all-American image makes it a juicy target. Seen in this light, his desire to fight the Florida bill in private makes some sense. But as many CEOs have learnt since the murder of George Floyd in 2020, employees and consumers now expect companies to take positions on public policy issues, from climate change to racial or social justice.
This is difficult terrain. Chapek said last week that he had discussed the bill with the state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, who is leaning heavily on an “anti-woke” agenda as he seeks re-election this year. Within days, DeSantis accused Disney of being in the pocket of the Chinese Communist party and labelled it a “woke” corporation.
Chapek’s apology to staff drew praise from members of Disney’s LGBTQ+ community but they expect more from the chief’s office. A website, whereischapek.com, went live this week with a list of demands and a schedule for “Disney Do Better” employee walkouts, although insiders say participation has been light.
Regardless, Chapek has work to do to build ties, not just with LGBTQ+ employees but with the broader creative community. Disney will host a session on Monday called “Reimagine Tomorrow” that is meant to foster discussion of the issue.
Chapek, whose contract is up for renewal in February 2023, can recover from this episode. Key to that is to keep on delivering the kind of results investors saw in week six and avoid the self-inflicted wounds of week 10.
Source: Financial Times