It was a bruised Bob Chapek who arrived at Disney’s annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday – and all because of a crisis of his own making.
Earlier in the week, Mr. Chapek, the company’s chief executive, botched an internal email to Disney employees. He was seeking to explain Disney’s public silence on anti-LGBTQ legislation in Florida that activists have labeled the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. There had been growing internal pressure on Mr. Chapek to condemn the bill, especially since his predecessor, Robert A. Iger, had already done so on Twitter and Disney employs 80,000 people in Florida. Instead, Mr. Chapek’s nearly 1,000-word memo poured gasoline on the fire, and the hashtag #boycottDisney was soon trending on social media.
“I am deeply angered by Disney thinking it can look the other way,” Abigail Disney, a granddaughter of one of Disney’s founders, wrote on Twitter. Employees in some parts of the company – Lucasfilm in San Francisco, Walt Disney World in Florida – complained bitterly to managers. On Tuesday, the Animation Guild, which represents Hollywood animation artists, writers and technicians, called Mr. Chapek’s decision to stay quiet “a momentous misstep” that “defies logic and company ethics.” The Los Angeles Times skewered him in an opinion column headlined in part, “Disney sets a new standard for corporate cowardice.”
Mr. Chapek addressed the criticism on Wednesday.
“While we’ve been strong supporters of the community for decades, I know that many are upset that we did not speak out against the bill,” said Mr. Chapek, who made his remarks off camera during the virtual meeting. “We were opposed to the bill from the outset, and we chose not to take a public position because we felt we could be more effective working behind the scenes directly with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.”
Since that effort failed, Mr. Chapek said, with the Florida Legislature passing the bill on Tuesday, he had called Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday “to express our disappointment and concern that if legislation becomes law, it could be used to unfairly target gay lesbian, nonbinary and transgender kids and families.”
“The governor heard our concerns and agreed to meet with me and LGBTQ + members of our senior team in Florida to discuss the ways to address them,” Mr. Chapek said. Mr. DeSantis has voiced support for the bill in the past.
Mr. Chapek also said Disney would donate $ 5 million to LGTBQ organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign. “As I wrote to our employees earlier this week, we’re committed to supporting community organizations like these so they are better equipped to take on these fights,” he said. “Meanwhile, we will also be assessing our approach to advocacy, including political giving in Florida.”
Before Mr. Chapek appeared, Susan Arnold, who succeeded Mr. Iger as Disney’s chairman (and who is one of the highest-ranking women in corporate America to live openly as a lesbian), started the company’s shareholder meeting. In prepared remarks, she praised the company’s profitability and growth and added that Disney strove “to create a workplace in which all employees feel welcomed and supported and to contribute to communities where we work.”
Then, in what appeared to be a pretaped video, an unusually gregarious Mr. Chapek, smiling and wearing a light gray suit with no tie, spent more than 30 minutes acting as cheerleader in chief. He heaped praise on recent accomplishments, including the opening of a new “Star Wars” attraction at Disney World, and teased upcoming offerings, like the summertime rollout of a new Disney cruise ship.
He then went off camera and did his best to execute a graceful exit from the “Don’t Say Gay” situation. “What we stand for as a company matters,” he said.
Mr. Chapek’s executive training wheels came off in December. For nearly two years, ever since Disney promoted him to chief executive, he had continued to answer to Mr. Iger, who remained executive chairman. At the end of last year, when Mr. Iger retired, it was finally Mr. Chapek’s chance to shine.
It started off well. Disney delivered sensational quarterly earnings on Feb. 9, with investors stunned at theme park profitability and the number of Disney + subscribers. Then came the criticism over the Florida legislation.
The matter gave Mr. Chapek his first serious trial by fire with a public relations matter. It amounted to a setback, especially given the image-polishing opportunity that Disney’s annual meeting could have provided.
But his words on Wednesday at least seemed to diminish the immediate heat on Disney, if not quite extinguish it altogether.