The Walt Disney Co. initially took heat for not taking a public position on Florida’s so-called “don’t say gay” bill — and now they are under fire for doing just that.
Others studios, though, have largely steered clear of the furor in the Sunshine State.
NBCUniversal, with its rival theme park presence in Orlando, has had no public comment on the new law. Paramount, Sony and Netflix also have not weighed in publicly.
Whether they like it or not, the issue isn’t going away, even as companies try to avoid the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation that has dogged Disney.
By the end of last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was suggesting that a 55-year-old special district, giving the company self-governing powers around Walt Disney World, should be rolled back, while Fox News’ Laura Ingraham suggested that “everything would be on the table,” from copyright protection to antitrust, when Republicans got back into power. She also singled out Apple, whose CEO, Tim Cook, also has spoken out against the Florida bill.
On Tuesday, departing WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar told CNBC, “I think this is a business issue. Yes there’s politics involved but it’s also a business issue, in that we strongly believe that anti-LGBTQ legislation is anti-business, and we don’t think that one person’s life or one person’s identity or one person’s love is any less than or less worthy of another. So we feel very strongly about this one, and we feel that this is about business as much as it is about politics.”
Representatives for other studios, as well as Netflix, did not respond to requests for comment.
That said, NBCU, Paramount Global, WarnerMedia and Sony Interactive Entertainment were among the more than 200 companies that signed on to a Human Rights Campaign and Freedom for All Americans statement opposing the wave of anti-LGBTQ state legislation.
And according to GLAAD, Comcast NBCU, WarnerMedia and Disney each will be donating airtime for a PSA, to be introduced this week, about a Texas family with a transgender child. That state’s governor issued a directive requiring state officials to investigate gender-affirming medical care as a form of child abuse. The directive is on hold pending court review.
But GLAAD also is calling on Hollywood to more forcefully — and publicly — speak out against state legislation.
During Saturday’s GLAAD Awards, CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said, “In this moment of crisis, what’s different is our community is holding companies accountable. So I have a message for the industry: Don’t wait until you’re in the hot seat. There’s no more time to sit on the sidelines. We need Hollywood on the front lines, fighting for our rights and telling our stories.”
Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, which DeSantis signed last week, prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in K-3 grades “or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” As proponents argue that the law is a narrowly tailored issue of parental rights, opponents dubbed it the “don’t say gay” bill and see it as part of a long history of efforts to target the LGBTQ community for political gain.
So far, just about all of the focus — and the backlash — has been on Disney.
As one of the state’s largest employers, the company initially stayed publicly neutral on the legislation, adopting an attitude, once common to corporate America, to avoid cultural fault lines. As it became clear that the legislation was likely to become law, CEO Bob Chapek reversed himself and publicly spoke out against it, acknowledging that “our original approach, no matter how well intentioned, didn’t quite get the job done.”
Shortly after DeSantis signed the bill, Disney came out with a forceful statement vowing to work to repeal it. “Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that,” the company said.
That set off a backlash by DeSantis and conservatives. Suddenly, Disney wasn’t just a corporation opposing a statewide bill but, in the words of commentators on the right, a “woke” company seeking to indoctrinate kids with the agenda of the LGBTQ left. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) tweeted that “next year, the woke Disney lobbyists will ask Congress to extend Micky [sic] Mouse’s trademark. I think not.” She appears to have conflated traded trademark with copyright, but you kind of get the point of the rhetoric and the new threats to corporations for speaking out.
Similar bills are being proposed in other states, including Georgia, where there is a major production presence. A version of the parental rights bill was introduced there last month and, though it’s not getting far this legislative session, there’s some expectation for next year, as well for it being a topic during the campaign. Back in 2016, as a religious liberty bill was making its way through the Georgia legislature, all of the major studios condemned it, along with a host of other corporations. Nathan Deal, then the state’s Republican governor, ended up vetoing the legislation. Disney, Netflix and WarnerMedia each raised public objections to a Georgia abortion law that has been stayed in the courts.
In an interview with Chris Wallace last week, former Disney CEO Bob Iger made the case for companies to take a public position. “It’s about right and wrong,” he said, while dismissing the impact of a backlash. The issue didn’t really come up at a Disney-hosted Wall Street investor event last week in Orlando.
“There is no evidence that I know of that right wing backlash results in corporate bottom lines being hit,” said Martin Kaplan, professor of entertainment, media and society at USC Annenberg. “Boycotts are more powerful as public relations tools than they are at economic sanctions. I don’t think there is any risk at all in following Disney’s lead.”
Employee pressure was a factor in compelling Disney to speak out publicly on the Florida law. Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist at global marketing and communications firm Weber Shandwick, said that while Disney is facing a backlash now from the right, it would have been greater had Disney continued to stay mum on the Florida law despite the pressure from its workforce to do so. She credits the company for reversing itself and going public.
“I have been researching and understanding CEO activism for many years now,” she said. “When comes to boycotting, it does fade. It doesn’t last long. But when it comes to your own employees, it can be damaging and have much more of an impact” on things like recruiting and questions of equality and fairness. “Today companies have to worry more about their own employees than who they cannot win over,” she said.
NBCU parent Comcast contributed to some of the same lawmakers behind the Florida law that Disney did. Yet it’s not surprising that Disney, and not its rivals, that has taken so much of the heat, as it is “in its own league. Disney is a major cultural force in this country and abroad. The eyes are always on Disney,” said Burghardt Tenderich, professor and associate director of the USC Center for Public Relations.
The USC Center did a study that showed the extent to which companies increasingly are taking stands on matters “not directly related to their area of business,” Tenderich said. “It matches what employees want. That is what we are seeing with Disney here. They are getting more serious accommodating their stakeholders in addition to their shareholders.”
The experience of the Florida bill may just be a prelude of things to come. A number of industry lobbyists are looking to see what happens in June, when the Supreme Court could very well roll back Roe v. Wade, leaving it up to the states to issue their own laws. That will be a further test of corporate response to the country’s ever-growing cultural rifts.
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