How Disney and CEO Bob Chapek made a mess of the company’s reaction to Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill – The Washington Post
Disney employs 38 lobbyists to press its interests inside Florida’s state Capitol complex in Tallahassee. With its Orlando theme park empire and roughly 80,000 workers, the company already wields considerable influence in a state closely tied to tourism. Disney’s army of lobbyists are there just to make sure no one forgets.
“Disney — they get everything they want,” said Anna Eskamani, a Democratic state representative from Orlando, who can rattle off a list of measures killed or pushed through with the company’s weight, such as an exemption designed for Disney from a 2021 bill that restricted the ability of social media firms to ban political candidates.
While Disney is now promising to work to undo the measure, a review of lobbying disclosures found no record of Disney activity on the bill in the House, where the legislation first emerged in January. (Similar records are not maintained in the Senate.) And Disney didn’t publicly speak out against the bill until it was close to final passage.
The ensuing pushback was a stunning blow for one of Florida’s most powerful companies, which for years had proved skilled at navigating culture war issues with behind-the-scene negotiations and deft signaling of its goals. Now the company faces protests from its own employees, criticism from LGBTQ activists and combative statements from DeSantis, who dismissed concerns from what he called a “woke” Disney.
Disney’s missteps illustrate just how much the political landscape has changed for companies in a country roiled by Black Lives Matter protests and the Jan. 6 insurrection. Disney discovered that the old corporate playbook for avoiding such controversy had been shredded by new customer and employee expectations about how companies should react, along with a fresh willingness from previously business-friendly Republicans to buck corporate wishes.
It bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten through third grade “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” The bill also requires parents be told when a child seeks school counseling. DeSantis’s press secretary Christina Pushaw derisively called it “the Anti-Grooming Bill.”
Depending on the view, that bill is an anti-critical race theory bill targeting corporate diversity training or a bill designed to prevent people from feeling discomfort over discussions of systemic racism or racial discrimination. The Republican sponsor of the bill cited a Disney diversity program called “Reimagine Tomorrow,” according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Disney is a major donor in Florida politics, donating $4.8 million to lawmakers in the 2020 campaign cycle, according to campaign finance records. Nearly 80 percent of that went to Republicans — and the Orlando Sentinel pointed out Disney had given money to every sponsor and co-sponsor of the bill. The online newsletter Popular Information noted several big corporations including UnitedHealth and Comcast donated hundreds of thousands to the bill’s supporters.
A couple of days later, Smith called Disney lobbyist Leticia Adams, according to two people familiar with the discussion who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private communications. He left their talk with the impression that the company believed the best odds for stopping the bill rested in the state Senate. Disney planned to work with a state senator to introduce an amendment similar to Smith’s.
He sent a memo to Disney workers — cast members, as they’re known — noting that he’d heard from staff disappointed that the company had not put out a public statement condemning the legislation. Chapek wrote that “corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds” and “they are often weaponized by one side or the other to further divide and inflame.”
The bill passed in the Senate one day later by a vote of 22 to 17. With the bill on its way to the governor, Chapek spoke out again at Disney’s annual shareholder meeting, saying that the company didn’t take a public position earlier “because we thought we could be more effective working behind the scenes, engaging directly with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.”
But the Human Rights Campaign — which gave Disney perfect scores in its Corporate Equality Index this year and in 2021 — rejected Disney’s donation. The group’s interim president, Joni Madison, said in a statement that Disney “took a regrettable stance by choosing to stay silent” and needed to work to get the law off the books.
The pressure from Disney workers ramped up. An anonymous group of employees launched WhereisChapek.com and planned a “Disney Do Better Walkout.” Two broadcasters on ESPN — owned by the sprawling entertainment company — offered a brief silent protest during an NCAA women’s basketball game. And dozens of workers in California staged a walkout. In Orlando, a single protester stood outside the theme park’s main entrance.
In a second memo to Disney workers, Chapek said Disney was suspending all political donations in Florida. He said the company was increasing support for advocacy groups to fight similar legislation in other states. And Chapek admitted, “I missed the mark in this case but am an ally you can count on.”
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