Disney Makes a Rare Public Relations Mistake in Johansson Crisis

We see it in politics all the time. Rather than debate ideas, politicians find it expedient to attack an opponent in an effort to generate a headline. This is a preferred public relations strategy of politicians – particularly national politicians – because, well, it works. It’s also a lot simpler and more efficient than actually debating the merits of the idea.

However, this is not an approach that works very well outside the halls of the Capitol Building in Washington DC. 

It’s critical from a public relations perspective that every organization refrains from personal attacks on individuals with whom they disagree. It is critical for your reputation, your ability to attract customers and clients, and your bottom line. Challenge the idea, words, or beliefs? Sure. Just not the person.

Disney recently stumbled in a war of public comments with acclaimed actress and Black Widow superhero Scarlett Johansson.

Johansson Sues Disney

On July 26, 2021, Johansson filed a lawsuit against the Walt Disney Co. in Los Angeles Superior Court. Her suit claims “Disney intentionally induced Marvel’s breach of the agreement, without justification, in order to prevent Ms. Johansson from realizing the full benefit of her bargain with Marvel.”

This suit ultimately centers on Johansson’s salary for the movie which includes a percentage of the box office take. By Disney simultaneously releasing the film on it’s streaming service, Disney+, the box office will significantly diminished and prevent her from realizing the full amount of money that would have been made if the film was distributed in theaters only.

For this article, we won’t debate the merits of the lawsuit or what the language in Johansson’s contract actually says. We also won’t debate what she may be entitled to. Here, we will dissect what occurred after the lawsuit was filed from a public relations point of view.

Disney’s Wrong Public Relations Turn

Shortly after the suit was filed, Disney released the following short statement in response:

“There is no merit whatsoever to this filing. The lawsuit is especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Disney has fully complied with Ms. Johansson’s contract and furthermore, the release of Black Widow on Disney+ with Premier Access has significantly enhanced her ability to earn additional compensation on top of the $20M she has received to date.”

Let’s spend some time dissecting this statement from Disney.

It’s out of character for a company whose success is tied to branding to attack an individual publicly this way. Particularly an actress who has played a major recurring character in several Marvel movies; an actress who just finalized a long-awaited feature film for the Black Widow; an actress who has helped generate countless dollars for Disney; and an actress who is generally a fan favorite. 

In this response, Disney chose not to challenge the merits of the lawsuit, but to attack Johansson’s character and intent.

“There is no merit whatsoever to this filing.”

Disney’s prepared statement begins with language that simultaneously dismisses the lawsuit and Johansson. Disney didn’t begin with, “We do not agree with the claims made in the lawsuit”; or “We believe we have followed the terms of the contract and look forward to working through this unfortunate lawsuit”. They begin with a strong statement that Johansson is out of line.

“The lawsuit is especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The next sentence may be where Disney missed the mark by the widest margin. Best case, this language was used to distract or divert attention away from the issue at hand – Johansson’s leveled charges. Or this could easily be perceived as Disney not being able to debate the merits of the lawsuit. Instead, they jump to an excuse for the breach of contract: COVID made us do it. 

Additionally, this is another attack on Johansson and paints her as heartless to the realities of a global pandemic. Public relations professionals understand the power in words and leveraging language such as “callous” and “horrific” was done with intent. This language was used to evoke certain emotion from stakeholders. Disney’s message is clear: during the pandemic, we care for our customers and Johansson is driven by wealth and greed. 

“Disney has fully complied with Ms. Johansson’s contract…”

This is the only part of the statement with value. This is the first line that actually addresses the lawsuit that was filed and not the person filing it. We will provide a recommended statement from Disney later in this post. This is the only line that will remain because it’s the only one that had any redeemable value.

“…the release of Black Widow on Disney+ with Premier Access has significantly enhanced her ability to earn additional compensation on top of the $20M she has received to date.”

This lacks strength without clarity on the language in her contract and how she may increase earnings. It hopes readers blindly accept the claim on its surface and is another parting attempt to paint Johansson as greedy.

Swift Condemnation of Disney’s Response

It’s no surprise that Disney’s response received swift and overwhelming condemnation. 

A story from Variety included several quotes from Bryan Lourd, co-chairman of the Creative Artists Agency representing Johansson, in response to Disney’s statement :

“They have shamelessly and falsely accused Ms. Johansson of being insensitive to the global COVID pandemic, in an attempt to make her appear to be someone they and I know she isn’t…The company included her salary in their press statement in an attempt to weaponize her success as an artist and businesswoman, as if that were something she should be ashamed of…Disney’s direct attack on her character and all else they implied is beneath the company that many of us in the creative community have worked with successfully for decades.”

Bryan Lourd, Creative Artists Agency

A piece by Jason Aten on Inc. concluded:

“The way you keep your promises to the people who work for you says a lot about whether you’ll keep the promises you make to your customers. By lashing out at Johansson, and using the pandemic in an attempt to shame her, Disney has essentially broken its promise not only to her, but also to all of us. That’s something no company should ever do.”

Jason Aten, Inc.

SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris released a statement that included several notable reactions to Disney’s response:

“Disney should be ashamed of themselves for resorting to tired tactics of gender-shaming and bullying…Scarlett Johansson is shining a white-hot spotlight on the improper shifts in compensation that companies are attempting to slip by talent as distribution models change…Disney and other content companies are doing very well and can certainly live up to their obligations to compensate the performers whose art and artistry are responsible for the corporation’s profits…Additionally, we are deeply concerned by the gendered tone of Disney’s criticism of Ms. Johansson. Women are not ‘callous’ when they stand up and fight for fair pay – they are leaders and champions for economic justice.”

Gabrielle Carteris, SAG-AFTRA President

Social media was also abuzz with replies from outlets, insiders and fans alike.

A Better Public Relations Strategy

It will be interesting to monitor this ordeal through its conclusion and the impact it has on Johansson and Disney. For now, it appears the end of Black Widow in Marvel films and unlikely development of a Black Widow 2. This conclusion hurts both parties – particularly from a future financial perspective.

However, could the relationship have been salvaged if Disney took a different public approach? For an entity that places as much importance on the strength of its brand, Disney may have been better served with a statement from CEO Bob Chapek such as this:

“The recent lawsuit filed by Scarlett Johansson is an unfortunate development in ongoing dialog related to Disney’s release of Black Widow and the terms of Ms. Johansson’s contract. Ms. Johansson has been a wonderful and popular addition to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe of movies and we are excited for the release of her feature film, Black Widow. Disney has fully complied with Ms. Johansson’s contract and it is our hope that this issue may be resolved swiftly and collaboratively. We look forward to the continued relationship with Ms. Johansson and the value that she, and her popular character, provide to Disney and Marvel fans across the globe.”

Ultimately, Disney may lose the lawsuit. Or they may win. They may wish to sever their relationship with Johansson either way. But a statement from the CEO similar to the one above would keep all possibilities for future collaboration intact.

The lesson for public relations pros that Disney has so graciously afforded us is that the right approach is never to attack the person, but to challenge the idea, words, or belief of the person. This is true for small organizations, large organizations, school systems, and anybody who wishes to keep their reputation intact!