Disney CEO Bob Chapek’s announcement that the company will pause political donations in Florida, amid the uproar over the company’s past support for politicians who backed the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, underscored the shifting position for corporate campaign contributions.
Where corporate political action committees faced relatively little scrutiny, save from public interest groups and campaign finance journalists, now they are political flashpoints — not just for large segments of their customer base but for rank-and-file employees.
“We are hard at work creating a new framework for our political giving that will ensure our advocacy better reflects our values,” Chapek wrote in a memo to employees on Friday.
When it comes to contributions to politicians, Hollywood overall has leaned to the left for decades. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks federal contributions, the split is 89% Democrats to 11% Republicans so far this cycle.
But at the corporate level, where the concerns are of influence on such issues as copyright, taxes and land use, the strategy has been to spread the wealth. That’s a point that Disney made with its contributions in Florida — that it was giving to candidates of both parties, otherwise known as hedging your bets. Comcast, which also has a heavy presence in Florida via its theme parks, has done pretty much the same thing. (A Comcast spokesperson did not return a request for comment.)
Yet the strategy of trying to please politicians on both sides of the aisle is proving to be a bit more problematic when it comes to divisive cultural issues combined with the mobilizing power of social media.
As the Florida bill made its way through the Legislature, Disney started taking a beating on social media as activists pointed to the fact that the company gave to one of its chief sponsors, State Sen. Dennis Baxley, as well as to other lawmakers and state Republican committees. Disney also contributed to one of the bill’s chief opponents, State Sen. Tina Polsky, along with Democrats but that didn’t matter. Word spread that Disney was “bankrolling” the champions of the bill.
“When legislators do things that make it uncomfortable or untenable for corporations to support them, it often puts PACs and corporate leaders in a bind, since they want to look principled to their customers but maintain cordial if not cozy relations with power brokers in office,” Sheila Krumholz, executive director of Center for Responsive Politics, wrote in an email. “The pressure on corporations is even greater when partisanship becomes more pronounced and parties embrace greater numbers of fringe candidates.”
She added that corporations still are “generally risk averse,” so “unless there is another easy way out of their quandary, they will probably try to maintain their former strategies of balancing consumer relations with political relations until either the public or the politicians force them to choose.”
Another recent example is the January 6 siege on the Capitol. In the aftermath, the Walt Disney Co. was part of a trend in corporate America to halt donations to House and Senate lawmakers who voted to reject the certification of votes to Joe Biden.
Since then, some companies have resumed their giving, but under the scrutiny of public interest groups like Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics In Washington and the site Popular Information. After a Lincoln Project advertising campaign in mid-2021 put a spotlight on its donations, Toyota pulled back its contributions to those lawmakers, acknowledging that even though it had given to members of both parties. “We understand that the PAC decision to support select members of Congress who contested the results troubled some stakeholders.”
Jordan Libowitz, communications director for CREW, said: “For so long, corporations kind of greased the wheels on both sides. They wanted to do business with whoever was in power.”
What has happened, though, is the spotlight on situations where corporate giving is different than their corporate image, he said.
“Companies for longer than I have been alive have pushed the idea of corporate responsibility — ‘we are not going to do bad things.’ But to certain populations, it looks like they are doing bad things,” he said. “I imagine that Disney wasn’t even tracking these bills. They care about Disney World, tax things. This kind of thing probably wasn’t on their radar. A lot of companies are going to have to adjust and realize that these things matter to a large portion of their customer base.”
Companies new to the political game in D.C. are a bit more jittery when it comes to setting up corporate PACs, according to one industry insider, while one industry veteran laments the days when things were just not as fraught. But also look at it another way: Given the flood of money in politics, isn’t increased scrutiny of corporate contributions, from customers and rank-and-file employees alike, a good thing?
The furor over the Florida bill might be just a prelude of things to come, as similar legislation is proposed in other states. GLAAD announced this week that its Studio Responsibility Index will take into account donations to “anti-LGBTQ elected officials, candidates for office and anti-LGBTQ political film studio and parent company.”
Perhaps that will lead to other media companies pausing their contributions as well. Libowitz said that when it comes to the attention on post-January 6 donations, the companies that have stopped giving to those lawmakers who voted against election certification “are the ones that people aren’t angry at right now.”
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