Disney CEO Demonstrates Difficulty of Navigating Business and Politics

Bob Chapek Manages to Piss Everybody Off with His Response to Florida’s Controversial Parental Rights in Education Bill

3/25/22 – – It’s been painful to watch Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Chapek struggle with the pressures created for him and his company by Florida’s proposed Parental Rights in Education bill.

Here’s the language from the bill getting most of the attention:

Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.

For Chapek, who took the helm of the world’s largest entertainment company just 15 months ago upon the retirement of Robert Iger, this legislation, dubbed by its opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, has exposed a surprising unpreparedness for the political and social challenges that come with his new responsibilities.

His leadership missteps began with a naive attempt to say nothing as the controversial bill made its way through the Florida legislature. Explaining that he didn’t want Disney to be used as a political football, he observed: “As we have seen time and again, corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds.”

I say Chapek was “naïve” to think he and the company could take a pass on such controversial legislation because Disney, during the decade and a half of Bob Iger’s leadership, firmly established its willingness to take strong political stands and provide financial support to both Democrat and Republican candidates for office in Florida, California and nationally. In a September 25, 2019, article in The Atlantic titled “Disney’s CEO Gets Why Employees Want Their Bosses to be More Political,” Iger, who considered running for President as a Democrat in 2020, said: “I do think companies, particularly large companies, have an obligation to try to solve some of these problems on behalf of their employees and come up with solutions.”

Chapek’s out-of-corporate-character reluctance to engage publicly in the debate over the bill’s perceived threats to Florida’s LGBTQ+ community set off a firestorm of criticism inside and outside the company.

Moved by the outpouring of anger and disappointment, Chapek went into full apology mode in an internal message to Disney employees: “You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down. I am sorry.” Describing the bill as “another challenge to basic human rights,” he addressed his change of mind and heart:

“Speaking to you, reading your messages, and meeting with you have helped me better understand how painful our silence was . . . I missed the mark in this case, but am an ally you can count on — and I will be an outspoken champion for the protections, visibility, and opportunity you deserve.”

Predictably, Chapek’s flip-flop raised the ire of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has championed the bill as a needed check on public-school educators, especially in the primary grades, interfering with private parenting rights. DeSantis, considered a possible Republican Presidential candidate, has welcomed the battle with Disney as a platform to spotlight this hot-button cultural issue.

Last week, a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll found that 51 percent of US voters support “banning the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade.” Only 35 percent opposed such a ban.

DeSantis has made it clear that he’s ready to rumble when it comes to corporate political activism. Here’s what he told the Florida Republican last year: 

“If you are in one of these corporations, if you’re a woke CEO, you want to get involved in our legislative business, look, it’s a free country. But understand, if you do that, I’m fighting back against you. And I’m going to make sure that people understand your business practices, and anything I don’t like about what you’re doing.”

Making the next move in this chess game, the Governor now has challenged Chapek to defend Disney’s business practices in China, where policies and practices regarding tolerance, freedom and human rights are indefensible.

What a mess.

Despite Chapek’s mea culpa and promise to do better, Disney employees staged walkouts this week in Florida and California. Winning back trust among employees threatened by the provisions in the bill will be very difficult. Maybe impossible. And it’s never great to have the governor of the state in which you operate your largest property highlighting your international hypocrisy and using his bully pulpit to question your respect for the rights of parents — the people who pay for the tickets to your movies and theme parks.

Perhaps as a sign of what’s to come for Chapek — who finds himself in what I call a “now I’ve pissed-off-everybody predicament” — Disney announced the postponement of an executive retreat in Orlando scheduled for next week. Instead, the embattled CEO will embark on a “listening tour” to hear from Disney employees.

In a Variety article published on Wednesday titled, “Mayhem in the Magic Kingdom: Disney ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Walkout Underlines Bob Chapek’s Leadership Crisis,” it was pointed out that, “Chapek’s own missteps reflect his tendency to keep counsel with a small group of senior executives rather than solicit wider opinions on key decisions.”

Maybe Mary Poppins and Jiminy Cricket are available for consultation.


UPDATE 3/26/22: Making things even tougher for CEO Bob Chapek, Disney employees supporting the Parental Rights in Education bill have voiced their opinion. Here’s what Fox Business is reporting: “A group of anonymous employees at The Walt Disney Company (TWDC) has spoken out in an open letter, warning the company not to take political stances that alienate some workers and parts of Disney’s audience, and claiming that Disney has become ‘an increasingly uncomfortable place to work’ for those who don’t agree with ‘explicitly progressive’ policies.”


UPDATE: 3/30/22 – – After Governor DeSantis on Monday signed the Parental Rights in Education bill into law, Disney, not backing off, issued this statement:

Florida’s HB 1557, also known as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, should never have passed and should never have been signed into law. Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that. We are dedicated to standing up for the rights and safety of LGBTQ+ members of the Disney family, as well as the LGBTQ+ community in Florida and across the country.

UPDATE: 4/16/22 – – The Wall Street Journal reports on consumer and political backlash against Disney’s stand, including threats to reject the company’s request to Congress to extend copyright protection for the iconic character Mickey Mouse.


UPDATE: 4/20/22 – – The Wall Street Journal reports that Florida Governor DeSantis is calling for a special session of the state legislature to consider ending Walt Disney World’s special tax district.

UPDATE: 4/23/22 – – Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a measure that will end Disney’s special tax district in the state on June 1, 2023. Disney has lost more than $40 billion of its market value since taking on the Governor in opposition to the Parental Rights in Education act.

UPDATE: 11/21/22 – – Headline from today’s Wall Street Journal: “Robert Iger Returns as Disney CEO Bob Chapek is Ousted.”

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