How Disney and Others Should Respond to COVID-19 Labor Practice Critics

Two days after announcing it would be furloughing 100,000 theme park and hotel workers as a result of coronavirus closures, Disney is facing fire from within (the family, at least). Company heiress and proverbial black sheep Abigail Disney, who in 2019 brought her criticism of management to Capitol Hill, took to Twitter to call out the conglomerate’s bonus structure. In her 21-tweet thread, Disney cited a Financial Times article which reported CEO Bob Chapek could earn an annual bonus "of not less than 300 percent" of salary  ($3M currently), and an incentive award of "not less than $15m."

Union representatives for 26,000 employees stated that while the company furloughed Florida employees with health benefits and automatically placed them on Florida’s Unemployment Assistance program, the payout of $275/week is one of the lowest in the country. In contrast, Disney still expects to pay shareholders $1.5 billion in July, although Chapek and former CEO (and current Chairman) Bob Iger said they would take a 50% pay cut, which Abigail Disney called "a drop in the bucket."

Abigail Disney also had harsh words for Disney’s communications department. "This is why I was quiet in March when executives at the company made a big PR push to call attention to the fact that they were giving up a portion of their salaries for the year…They have consistently tried to PR their way through a series of messes of their own making, and that will only last for so long."

To Respond or Not to Respond?

But how should communicators respond to stories that break about salary inequality, management and labor practices in the era of COVID-19, likely to hit the press for weeks if not months? The initial iteration of the Payment Protection Program meant to help small companies make payroll ran out of money in days, with millions flowing to at least 32 CEOs, per a Popular Info list, and subsequent lawsuits are stacking up.

"Disney, like many large corporations, banks and universities, can expect increasing harsh public criticism for the way they protect their financial interests during the COVID-19 pandemic. Whistleblowers and activists always find more support  when a large segment of the population is suffering," noted Gene Grabowski, partner at kglobal.

These companies would be "well-advised to acknowledge the perspective of accusers, while at the same time taking action that supports any statements they might make in their defense," said Grabowski.

In these instances, he said, words alone won't do; a sacrifice needs to be made in order to deflect criticism.

Actions, Inactions Speak Louder than Words

Grabowski advised Disney and others to avoid lashing out at whistleblowers or critics. Andy Gilman, president and CEO of CommCore Consulting Group, agreed: "I do not recommend a direct response to charges from shareholders, even when the individual has the same last name as the company. Any response should emphasize what Disney is doing to support the employees on furlough."

This approach would be a deviation from the company’s PR response to the heiress’ criticism of its pay structure last year, in which a spokesperson called her allegations a "gross and unfair exaggeration."

Before responding to such criticism, PR pros should "determine quickly whether the adverse news is attracting broader attention from major media outlets and whether it is gaining traction on social media," advised Grabowski. (Unfortunately for the conglomerate, Abigail Disney’s tweet thread has seen over 11,000 retweets and 34,000 likes as of this writing.)

Other options, said Grabowski, include making major charitable donations to relief organizations, and creating an in-house team led by an outside crisis expert to develop proactive solutions. "It's critical that an outside expert drive the process to avoid defensiveness and insular thinking on the part of the institution's team," he argued.

Or, companies might consider the legal route. A company's choices "depend on which court you want to pursue the matter—the court of law or court of public opinion. If an employee, or anyone else under a non-disclosure obligation, releases information, there are usually legal remedies," said Gilman. However, "pursuing these options can backfire depending on reactions from other employees, customers or influencers," he warned.