Disney’s Bob Chapek apologises to staff over response to ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill

Bob Chapek, Disney’s chief executive, on Friday issued a stark apology to employees over the company’s response to a bill in Florida that critics dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

“You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down. I am sorry,” Chapek wrote in a memo seen by the FT that was addressed to “my fellow colleagues, but especially our LGBTQ+ community”.

The apology capped a tumultuous week for Chapek and Disney’s LGBTQ+ staffers, who criticised his announcement on Monday that the company would not publicly condemn the legislation. Many members of the company’s staff have denounced the bill, which would ban schools in Florida from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity with children aged nine and younger.

The uproar appeared to take Disney’s leadership by surprise, sending Chapek’s team into near-crisis mode less than three months after he fully assumed the leadership of the company with the retirement of former chair and chief executive Bob Iger in December.

But some Disney staff members who had criticised Chapek’s performance this week welcomed his apology.

“I want to thank Bob Chapek for taking this step,” Benjamin Siemon, a writer for Disney animation, wrote on Twitter. “We have more to do as a company in helping make Disney a place the LGBTQIA+ community can be proud of again but it’s a start.”

Chapek also pledged on Friday to increase its giving to advocacy groups to fight similar legislation in other states, and said the company would suspend its political donations in Florida and review its strategy for contributing to campaigns.

The positions Chapek outlined on Friday appeared to meet the major demands activists had made of the company. His team had preferred to work behind the scenes to try to kill the bill in Florida, where Disney has 66,000 employees. But governance experts said companies are increasingly being asked to take stances on public policy, from climate change to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Standing aside is not a viable option any longer,” said Aron Cramer, president and chief executive of Business for Social Responsibility. “It’s no surprise that companies that create cultural offerings are being caught in the culture wars. [Leadership today] involves taking a public position to meet expectations of employees, customers and investors.”

The trouble began after Chapek met with a small group of the company’s LGBTQ+ employees on March 4 to discuss the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. They told him they were upset that Disney had not used its clout to publicly condemn the proposal.

Chapek on Monday recounted the meeting in a staff memo in which he praised the “bravery, honesty and pride those voices expressed”. But instead of coming out against the bill — officially known as the Parental Rights in Education act — Disney’s chief executive spent much of the 900-word memo explaining why he would not. The best chance the company had of bringing about change was not a statement but “through the inspiring content we produce”, he wrote.

The Animation Guild, which counts Disney’s famed animators among its membership, called it “a momentous mis-step” and accused the company of standing silent “while this scurrilous piece of homophobic legislation passes”.

Chapek reversed himself two days later in another memo in which he voiced opposition to the bill and pledged $5mn to the Human Rights Campaign, which works to protect LGBTQ+ rights. But the group rejected the money, and criticism from activists and employees continued.

A group calling itself “LGBTQIA+ employees of Pixar”, the animation group owned by Disney, issued a statement saying they were “disappointed, hurt, afraid and angry” by the company’s actions. They also accused the group of cutting scenes of “gay affection” from Pixar productions.

It did not help Chapek’s case that Iger expressed his opposition to the Florida proposal in a tweet last month. “If passed, this bill will put vulnerable, young LGBTQ people in jeopardy,” he wrote.

Disney has been out front for decades on social issues, from racial and gender diversity on its board to LGBTQ rights, governance experts say. Iger also sometimes waded into hot-button political issues, including in 2019 when he said it would be difficult to keep filming in Georgia if the state passed a controversial “heartbeat” abortion law. But Chapek has appeared less willing than his predecessor to wade into such divisive political and cultural issues.

The bill will require a signature by Ron DeSantis, the state’s Republican governor, to become law — an outcome most see as likely. DeSantis is seeking re-election and is believed to be eyeing a run for the White House.

Chapek said this week that he had spoken with DeSantis, who had agreed to meet him and some of Disney’s LGBTQ+ employees in the state. But after Chapek’s memo on Friday, the governor sent a campaign fundraising message saying “Disney is in far too deep with the Communist Party of China and has lost any moral authority to tell you what to do,” the Associated Press reported.

Until this week’s Florida controversy, Chapek was enjoying a good run with the business. In his first quarter since becoming fully in charge, Disney reported strong growth in its streaming business and a robust recovery at its theme parks, which had struggled during the pandemic.

Now he must ease concerns among employees. The company’s focus is now on “outreach and bridge building” to repair the damage, according to one insider.

Martin Whittaker, chief executive of Just Capital, said getting these conversations right is crucial for the company. “Disney does pretty well on diversity, equity and inclusion. They do well on supporting and developing the local communities where they operate,” he said. “So I think they’ve got a lot to lose.”