Just keep communicating: Lessons from Disney’s battle with activist investors


Six lessons from Disney’s leadership in addressing investor concerns and articulating a clear plan of action

Once upon a time, in the enchanted realm of corporate governance, two formidable figures clashed in a battle of wills: one a beacon of innovation and prosperity, and the other a master of disruption and change. In this kingdom, effective communications proved to be the ultimate magic. 

Effective communication is paramount in today’s hyperconnected world, where information spreads rapidly and investor sentiment can sway markets. 

In Disney’s confrontation with activist investors, CEO Bob Iger’s strategic communication approach proved instrumental in demonstrating a keen awareness of the company’s failings and a commitment to meaningful change, ultimately resulting in victory for Disney’s leadership and board of directors. 

At the heart of this success lies a fundamental principle: acknowledging issues, rather than filtering them, inspires innovation, fosters growth and underscores the critical role of communication in leadership. 

Last fall, facing mounting pressure from Trian Partners and founding partner Nelson Peltz, Iger embarked on a proactive mission to address investor concerns head-on. For every alleged instance of mismanagement, Iger and Disney had an answer: the formation of a succession committee to identify and prepare Iger’s next replacement; a series of bold initiatives aimed at revitalizing every facet of the business, from streaming services to movies to sports; partnership and ownership opportunities with fellow media and gaming giants; endorsements from financial titans, filmmakers and descendants of Walt Disney himself.

It’s often said that actions speak louder than words, but in corporate leadership, the right communications strategy amplifies the action and intent behind the scenes, ultimately shaping public perception and behavior. Iger’s vision and efforts were bolstered by a robust grassroots communications strategy that recognized the diverse stakeholders invested in the company’s success. Targeted social media ads featuring whimsical music and cartoon characters encouraged everyday retail investors to support Disney’s slate of directors, while executives and board members actively engaged major institutional shareholders, highlighting the company’s strides towards streaming profitability and studio revitalization. 

By openly addressing investor concerns and articulating a clear plan of action, Iger effectively controlled the narrative, mitigating doubts and instilling confidence in shareholders. Disney’s triumph proves that acknowledging challenges and engaging stakeholders openly is not defeatist but rather a strategic imperative for driving growth and value creation. It also underscores the importance of collaboration between leadership teams, legal experts and communications professionals in managing crises effectively. By aligning communication efforts with organizational goals, companies can navigate even the most challenging situations with confidence and resilience.

Here are six key lessons from Disney’s proxy fight. 

Defensive communications can still be proactive

Actively engaging with stakeholders — even, or perhaps especially, sticky ones — is crucial to telling your own story and influencing the cult of opinion. Companies that give communications leaders a seat at the table can cultivate trust more quickly and steer public discourse in a direction that reinforces the CEO’s vision and goals.

Innovation in situ demands collaboration

Co-creation is what leads to real innovation. By embracing collaboration, leaders can tap into the collective intelligence of their teams, unlocking richer, more interesting ideas for solving big problems that may not have been possible through individual efforts alone.

Action backed by accountability inspires confidence in leadership

A robust defense strategy is essential in maintaining investor confidence, particularly in times of adversity. By mapping out bold initiatives and demonstrating progress against them, companies can effectively counter criticisms and inspire confidence in their leadership. Better yet, doing this in calmer moments can help stave off potential problems down the line.

Acknowledging issues drives value

Effective communication is not just about conveying messages; it’s about authenticity, building trust, instilling confidence, and forging connections. In acknowledging issues rather than ignoring them, companies can inspire innovation, foster growth and create value. 

A strong understanding of individual audiences is necessary to be effective

When leadership needs to connect with multiple audiences, they must first understand the nuanced differences each cohort faces. From there, they can build communications initiatives and messages tailored to each group. When each target audience receives information relevant to them, they are more likely to engage and take the requested action. 

Strategy falls flat without surround sound

At this point, we all know it takes multiple touch points to get stakeholders to truly hear what leaders have to say. Don’t let your distribution and amplification strategy be an afterthought. Use the data-driven insights at your disposal to understand where your audiences are and what messages and formats resonate most to get your point across at exactly the right moment.

By Reed Handley

This byline was originally published in PRWeek


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