Geoff Morrell, formally the chief corporate affairs officer for the Walt Disney Company, announced a decision on Friday to part ways with the entertainment giant after only three months in the role.
His departure comes in the wake of Disney’s highly-controversial response to the Parental Rights in Education law in Florida—a response Morrell played a key role in formulating.
“After three months in this new role, it has become clear to me that for a number of reasons it is not the right fit,” Morrell said in a letter obtained by CNBC. “After talking this over with [Disney CEO] Bob [Chapek], I have decided to leave the company to pursue other opportunities.”
His tenure may have been a short one, but in a span of just over twelve weeks, Morrell oversaw a historic public relations nightmare for the iconic brand.
Things started to go south for Disney and Morrell in early March when the company decided to uncharacteristically take a public stance on a piece of legislation passed in Florida—HB 1557 which is meant to prevent activist teachers from introducing gender identity to grade-school students.
The law, which was signed into law by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis in March, makes it illegal for public schools to teach on issues of sexuality, sexual orientation, gender therapy, and other similar topics under grade 3 unless they are “age appropriate.”
Proponents of the law say HB 1557 protects children from being prematurely exposed to explicit materials or concepts. Critics claim that the law prevents teachers from discussing important subjects with students that don’t feel comfortable discussing them with their parents.
With similar pieces of legislation are being proposed in states like Iowa, Texas, Utah, and others, the critics grew in scale and the conversation quickly became a topic of national discussion. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Inc, publicly stated on Twitter that he strongly disagreed with the direction of the law, going so far as to state that he was “deeply concerned” by its passage.
He wouldn’t be the only company leader to publicly oppose the law.
Up until Morrell’s tenure at Disney the company had largely played social issues fairly close to the chest. Former communications leadership under Zenia Mucha, Morrell’s predecessor, had steered clear of entangling the company in issues that wouldn’t impact it directly. And Disney’s CEO, Bob Chapek, repeatedly asserted that Disney didn’t have an official position on issues like these. But Morrell had a different vision for Disney.
Morrell had extensive experience in the public relations industry. Formerly the communication director for BP, the oil production company, and the press secretary for the Pentagon, Morrell seemed to have the perfect track record to replace Mucha.
Upon assuming his role, which had been expanded to include government relations, public policy, and more, Morrell argued the company should attempt to modernize its outward-facing stance. HB 1557 presented an opportunity to do just that.
Mounting internal pressures also made it clear that many employees at the House of Mouse wanted to see the company take a more aggressive stance on social matters. In late March, a group of over 100 Disney employees walked out, protesting the company’s lack of support for the LGBTQ community, despite the company’s extensive support for the LGBTQ community.
In a matter of weeks after the announcement that Disney opposed the bill, Governor Ron DeSantis stripped Disney of its special tax district in Florida—Reedy Creek—effectively removing zoning and construction privileges Disney had enjoyed in the state for decades. The company also began receiving hundreds of calls from concerned parents, vocalizing concern at what they saw as an attempt to “sexualize children in kindergarten.”
As Morrell transitions out of his role, Disney CEO Chapek says he isn’t worried about the company’s ability to carry onward.
“Fortunately, the strength and experience of our existing leadership team — including relatively new all-star hires — means there is no shortage of talent to guide our reputation-driving functions,” Chapek said in an internal email.
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