One of the nastiest and most public fights on the culture war front has been the clash between Disney and Florida’s GOP over the state’s Parental Rights in Education law. Disney jumped late into the fight and only because the company’s vocal LGBTQ employees pressured CEO Bob Chapek to speak out against it after the left falsely slapped the label “Don’t Say Gay” onto the legislation.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida legislature responded by revoking Disney’s special governing status for its Reedy Creek Improvement District, an act I referred to in a column last month as a “nuclear option.” Disney bit the hand that so generously fed it for over half a century, and the state exacted a price.
Whether or not you think Florida’s actions smack of “spiking the football” or not, it’s easy to see that revoking Reedy Creek was an effective act. And other companies are viewing it as a warning, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported.
CEOs have seen the battle between Disney and the state of Florida, and it has given them pause when it comes to speaking out.
“At many companies, vocal employees have in recent years pushed bosses to take public stands on social and political issues,” Chip Cutter and Emily Glazer write at the WSJ. “Florida’s pushback against Disney has raised the stakes.”
Even reliably left-wing executives are beginning to wonder if the stakes of speaking out are worth the potential fallout. CEOs are learning that speaking out socially without wandering into political battles is no longer possible, especially in states where conservatives will fight back.
Republicans at the state level are also learning that the long-default position of being favorable to big business at all costs is no longer advantageous. Democrats, too.
“It used to be that Republicans especially—but both parties—liked big business,” attorney David Berger said. “And now what you’re seeing is both parties like to use big business as political footballs one way or the other.”
The flip side for CEOs, of course, is staying quiet. When Disney remained reticent to criticize the Florida bill, woke employees aimed their daggers at Chapek, albeit based on lies. They pressured him to speak up, which only escalated the war between the Sunshine State and the Mouse.
Chapek’s case may be an outlier, as many CEOs might be relieved to lie low and not raise a fuss about hot-button issues.
“Some executives might be relieved,” Cutter and Glazer point out. “The old idea that CEOs should focus on shareholder returns and stay out of politics lingers in some corporate suites, even in a politicized age of public social-media discussions and more-activist workforces.”
After the Disney debacle, executives have to walk a fine line. Do they stay quiet and risk angering their woke employees or speak out and gamble on more dire consequences? Naturally, every situation is going to be different, but the Florida scenario just might have killed the knee-jerk corporate reaction.
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