In a time of digital transparency, keeping seismic events a secret until they actually come to pass has proven to be an almost insurmountable task. For media companies, the challenge is tripled: Many of them employ staffers whose job it is to ferret out news before it happens and make it known to the general public.
But Walt Disney managed to pull it off. The company’s decision to have former parks and resorts chief Bob Chapek succeed longtime CEO Bob Iger on a Tuesday afternoon was greeted by many as a big shock in a corporate news cycle that has been filled with them in recent months. Chapek’s elevation follows changes of well-known CEOs at CBS, NBCUniversal and Fox in recent months. Some of those moves were seen as inevitable. Disney’s top-slot switch, however, took the industry by surprise.
Comcast’s NBCUniversal has found keeping a lid on big executive changes difficult in recent months. A plan by its former CEO, Steve Burke, to step back and cede day to day operating duties to his successor, Jeff Shell, began to surface in advance of the announcement in December. So too did a large shift of duties among NBCU’s top ranks in January. The media has been anticipating the merger of Viacom and CBS for several years.
Disney’s announcement raised the eyebrows of even some of its top executives, according to one person familiar with the matter. Some employees found out about the news not from an internal memo but from news dispatches from traditional media outlets, this person said. And insiders are trying to figure out why the company decided to make the decision on a day when the stock market was in the midst of a rout, owing to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus in Europe and Asia.
Walt Disney has a recent history of keeping major news events close to the vest. While word did leak out early about its efforts to snare the bulk of the former 21st Century Fox, its acquisitions of Marvel and Lucasfilm were executed without any outside word coming to the fore.
Every publicly traded corporation seeks to put a cone of silence around major initiatives and deals. In the media sector, where employees love to gossip among friends and rivals, and where the biggest companies often own news divisions that can’t keep themselves from trying to find out more about their corporate parents. Doing so in an era of direct-mail messages, Medium posts and Twitter-built speculation around any scrap of information takes some doing. In this instance, at least, Walt Disney kept prying eyes outside its walls.