If you have never faced off with a special interest group, it is probably just a matter of time until you do.

A special interest group is an organization that pursues a specific goal or cause through social or legislative advocacy. Most people think of them as large and far-reaching organizations that pursue significant environmental, religious and human rights causes around the world. 

For business owners, this is potentially a dangerous misunderstanding.

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A special interest group can be any size and from any place that seeks to promote change or further an agenda. It can be as simple as a group of disenfranchised customers aiming to bad-mouth your company. Because of the ubiquitous acceptance of social media and electronic communication, these smaller groups have much more influence than they had in the past. 

Let’s face it, they don’t even have to get off their couch.

My company, Wild Creations, sells live animals (frogs), and regardless of the fact that we have worked diligently with a number of other animal advocacy groups and have reputable endorsements for our product, we have never been able to appease PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).

Unfortunately, PETA seeks attention more than advocacy, leveraging aggressive and extremist tactics to influence businesses and garner acceptance and membership. These days, many special interest groups follow this same protocol, so business owners need to be prepared.

Regardless of the cause or the size of the organization, it is important for entrepreneurs to be prepared. Mishandling or underestimating the influence these groups have could hurt your business. More importantly, when aggressive groups start to bully you, your customers and stakeholders, handling them properly can make you and your company out to be a hero.

Here are five tips to help you deal with being in the crosshairs of a special interest group.

1. Plan ahead. Understand the potential threats and prepare for them well in advance. News and information spreads in a flash these days through social media, so you do not want to be left flat-footed in the face of an “attack.” Identify groups or situations that could potentially threaten your business and clearly understand the motivation and goals of each.

2. Survive the war. Your primary goal is to survive and escape with the least damage. More than likely, you are not going to persuade a group to change their stance, and regardless of how influential you might be (or think you might be), you will not derail them. 

Many times, attacking back only makes them more persistent and stronger. It is therefore best to choose your battles carefully. If the group does not pose a serious threat to your business, then the best course of action is to ignore them altogether. There is no need to engage in the “battle” if it does not’t help you survive the “war.”

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3. Be forthcoming. Instead of focusing your response on the special interest group, focus on and speak to your customers and stakeholders. Be honest and beholden to them, and never falsify information for the sake of making your company look good. Again, you are not going to influence most advocacy groups, but you will make your customers and stakeholders happy by demonstrating your full understanding of and willingness to address the problem.

4. Don’t stoop. Unfortunately, many groups are aggressive, extreme and disingenuous. While it may be difficult for you to take the "jabs" without firing back, getting into a war of words and insults will only hurt you long term. Instead, take the high road, address any misinformation directly and agree to disagree. You will be seen by everyone outside the entanglement as the cool-headed one.

5. Stay the course. Most special interest groups want victories, regardless of how small, to promote to their membership. For this reason, it is important for you, your customers and your stakeholders that are affected to not back down, especially if you are right. Doing so emboldens the group you are facing and empowers them to continue their bully tactics. Like most bullies, they will seek out new targets for their aggression if ignored.

With all of this said, keep in mind that there are many special interest groups that are civil in their discourse and will even work with you to resolve an issue. Listen to them, and if you find merit to their concerns and can find a way to work together or compromise to resolve them, doing so will elevate your reputation to all parties involved.

Wild Creations has found great success and even improved our business by being transparent, honest and open to the special interest groups who are willing to work with us. If, however, you find yourself embattled with an unreasonable special interest group such as PETA, who seek simply to further a very specific agenda and are unwilling to work with you, just follow these tips to help you weather the challenge.

Do you have an experience with a special interest group? Please share with others how you handled it in the comments section below.

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