Disney was left in the middle of the debate of a controversial law in Florida

The problems began on January 11, when Joe Harding, a Republican legislator from the small town of Williston, Florida, introduced a bill known as the Parents’ Rights in Education Act in the state House of Representatives. This law, which came in the midst of an intense national debate about genderless bathrooms, transgender participation in school sports, and “gender-affirming” medical procedures, included this line: “A school district may not encourage the classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity at the elementary levels or in a way that is not age or developmentally appropriate.

The controversial bill quickly became the center of debate and began to be referred to as the state’s “don’t say gay” law, for its covert goal of restricting discussion of sexual or gender identity in elementary schools.

In the midst of this convulsive state debate was Disney, until now known as loyal to the LGBTQ movement.

The great challenge was to decide whether or not to pronounce on the norm…

It is that almost 30 years ago, in 1995, the company became one of the first American companies to offer health benefits to same-sex partners of its employees. The move was hailed at the time as a major moment in the gay rights movement in the United States and a turning point in the company’s image.

That decision, made amid strong conservative criticism accusing the company of espousing “anti-family values,” inspired decades of loyalty among the company’s LGBTQ staff.

But this time around, Disney officials decided to avoid taking a public stand on the controversial “Don’t Say Gay” rule, one of the most divisive issues in American politics…

“In a short time they have managed to anger both the left and the right,” a former Disney executive analyzed for the Financial Times. “This time he is facing what may be the worst public relations crisis in his 100-year history, and now the criticism is coming from across the political spectrum,” says the outlet.

Disney’s initial reluctance to speak out against the bill, which staff at its Orlando theme parks viewed as dangerous and discriminatory, even led to strikes.

But when the company backtracked and condemned the bill, it found itself in the crosshairs of the right…

Spearheaded by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Republicans in the state — including several who had accepted campaign contributions from Disney in the past and reliably voted for legislation backed by the company — lashed out at the company.

Right-wing TV analysts went on the attack. Conservative journalist and activist Chris Rufo even declared a “moral war against Disney.”

And critics are doing serious damage to Disney’s reputation: A recent survey of Americans’ views of the companies, conducted by Axios and the Harris Poll, shows that Disney’s public image has fallen from 28th place last year. to 65 in this 2022.

View of the entrance to Walt Disney World Resort, in Orlando, Florida. EFE/Erik S. Lesser/File

How did one of the world’s most beloved family brands get into this situation? The answer, explains journalist Christopher Grimes in his Ft article, lies in a series of unexpected social and political changes for a new generation of employees who believe that the companies they work for should be agents of social change, and in a party Republican whose allegiance to corporate America is no longer secure.

How it was decided which position to take

Concerns began to surface at Disney headquarters in Burbank, California in early February. A Disney World executive suggested the company could defuse employee criticism by signing a public letter, released by the LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, rejecting the project. Large companies such as Apple and Amazon had been among the first to sign.

But that idea was rejected by Geoff Morrell, who had arrived at Disney in late January as its new head of corporate affairs.

According to the FT, Morrell is a registered Republican and, although he worked for the Obama administration, he started at the Pentagon under the command of Robert Gates, George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense. He argued that Disney, one of the last remaining “unifying brands” in the United States, should avoid positioning itself on hot cultural issues.

The decision not to sign the letter was a huge mistake, current and former Disney officials say. Doing so would have eased internal tensions without attracting the attention of Florida Republicans, they argue. Others who were aware of the discussions dismiss it as revisionist history, reasoning that the Disney signing would likely have become an issue anyway.

Still, Disney’s public silence became more conspicuous in late February, when former Disney CEO Bob Iger retweeted a statement by President Joe Biden calling the bill “hateful.” “I’m with the president on this,” wrote the former CEO, who remains an influential figure in Hollywood. “If passed, this bill will endanger young and vulnerable LGBTQ people.”

With that forceful opinion, Iger exposed the current Disney CEO, Bob Chapek, who was left in a very uncomfortable position.

Supporters of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which bans classroom teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity, at a rally outside Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, the United States, on March 16. April 2022. (REUTERS/Octavio Jones)

That tweet, moreover, came on the same day that the Florida Senate began considering the bill…and began an internal debate over whether or not Chapek should issue a statement.

Meanwhile, tells FT, the Disney lobby was working to soften the bill, but could not. And as the bill made its way through the Senate, Chapek began to feel more pressure from his staff.

On Monday, March 7, he issued a memo to staff acknowledging employees’ “disappointment” that Disney had not condemned the bill. However, he defended the decision saying – presciently, as it turned out – that corporate statements “are often used as weapons by one side or the other to divide and inflame.”

Instead, Disney’s most effective tools for bringing about change, according to the memo, were the “three Cs” – a concept devised by Morrell – which included content, corporate culture and support for various community organizations. The reference to the content angered Disney creatives, including Pixar animators, who noted that the company often removed or downplayed gay or lesbian characters in its work.

The day after the internal communication was published, the bill was approved by the Florida legislature. Furious employees planned walkouts and wondered why Disney had contributed funds to Republicans who voted for the bill.

On March 11, Chapek sent another internal communication, but this time it was forceful: “They needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let them down. Sorry,” he wrote, announcing that the company would suspend its political donations in Florida and review its strategy for contributing to campaigns in the future.

Since then, Chapek has corrected course. He began by removing Morrell at the end of April. Disney PR is now run by Kristina Schake, who handled communications for Michelle Obama when she was First Lady and worked for Hillary Clinton during her failed 2016 presidential run.

Chapek embarked on a “listening tour” that took him to the headquarters of Pixar, ESPN, Disney World and other divisions. He created an LGBTQ task force at Disney — a group of 30 executives who are examining the company’s content and internal culture — and met with small groups of LGBTQ employees who shared their stories of discrimination.

But the controversy left Disney in a very awkward position. With the midterm elections looming in November, issues like race, abortion, guns, and LGBTQ rights will dominate debate on the left and right, and the decisions you make or don’t make will come back into focus. political attention.

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