When Special Interest Groups Attack
In 2009, the organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, otherwise known as PETA, put our company, Wild Creations, on their "Most Wanted" list, and not the good most wanted list we product developers pine for. One of our most popular products, an ecosystem habitat with aquatic frogs, was just starting to make big waves nationally. We had expanded to over a thousand small retailers and secured a deal with our first large national retailer. We had won numerous industry awards that year and received a great deal of media attention. Because we had a unique product that featured a cute and adorable pet, we were an industry darling…and a prime PETA target.
The attacks started mildly enough, with a few newspaper articles that propagated false information about Wild Creations. At one point, the group falsely claimed that we had received numerous citations for animal rights violations at our warehouse in North Carolina. Not only had we not received any citations, but our warehouse wasn’t even in North Carolina. The attacks increased in frequency and escalated in intensity, as they initiated campaigns that harassed our retailers, including the large retailer with whom we had just partnered, with tens of thousands of form emails and negative Facebook posts. They went so far as to report animal abuse to our local authorities, pay for Google ads aimed at slandering the business and management, and even organizing two or three person protests at stores. It was ugly.
What they did not do during this time is contact or even attempt to reach out to Wild Creations directly to discuss their concerns and possibly work toward an amenable solution, which we had done with every other such organization to date.
Special interest groups like PETA come in all shapes and sizes, from huge organizations with a global reach and tens of thousands of supporters to very small and regionally based groups made up of neighborhood advocates. Most are very congenial, reasonable and cooperative, while others have hidden agendas. From our experience, a vast majority will work with instead of against companies to further their cause. And, since all we want to do is provide happy families with a wonderful pet, we are more than willing and happy to listen to and cooperate with them.
What do you do, however, when a special interest group simply doesn’t like your product or your company? These groups are often insatiable and hostile, attacking you and your customers, often with false claims and slander. They typically are ruthless in their methods and employ bully tactics to make their point.
Without the deep pockets and savvy public relations departments of larger corporations, handling the threat of a hostile special interest group can be extremely stressful. Here are a few tips for making it through the situation with your business, reputation and sanity intact:
1. Be Prepared
Understand the potential threat of special interest groups that could find your company and products to be offensive and ripe for an attack. Do your research and don’t dismiss any as nonsense or unrealistic.
2. Choose Your Battles
Most hostile special interest groups just want attention. They will employ bully tactics to undermine your company, often attacking your customers as well as you. Like most bullies, engaging with them will just stoke the fire, but ignoring them can deflate their enthusiasm and encourage them to pursue another fight where they can garner more attention. If the group is not hurting your business, do not engage (but be prepared!).
3. Be Transparent
If you are forced to respond, be honest about your business and products. Don’t hide anything, lie or embellish unnecessarily, as this will just raise suspicion and eventually hurt your credibility. You will sound more credible if you have and stick to factual evidence and use endorsements to back you up.
4. Take the High Road
While hostile groups will engage in false statements, slander, name calling and embellishments, do not return the sentiment. Providing your customers and the public with a professional response with an “agree to disagree” approach will make the other group appear adolescent in their tactics and discredit their claims.
5. Don’t Back Down
When it becomes clear that the hostile special interest group has no interest in cooperating, do not give in, regardless of the intensity of the attacks. Encourage your customers and vendors not to succumb to the pressure as well. Bending to the group, especially when you have done nothing wrong, will only provide fodder and strength for future campaigns.
6. Do the Right Thing
Ultimately, most special interest groups (even PETA) have a good cause. If you actually find that the concerns of the group are valid, then work with them to improve your business and products. This can lead to a great relationship and, possibly, an endorsement. Just don’t count on that from PETA.
Wild Creations survived the attacks by PETA, retained the relationships with all of our retailers, and continued to grow and eventually make the Inc500 list in 2010. We were able to do so because we had ample evidence pertaining to the viability of our product, details supporting our animal handling practices, and partnerships and endorsements from qualified professionals.
As PETA had hoped, the issue gained a good deal of media attention, but because we were doing nothing wrong and handled the complaints professionally, we were able to come out better in the end. As they say, any press is good press…as long as you are prepared to handle it. We are still on PETA’s radar, and because their campaigns are typically tied to seasonal fluctuations in our business, I’m sure we’ll hear from them again soon. We are prepared, however, and we will continue to be transparent, professional, and true to our values.
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