Furlandia: Portland's first furry convention overshadowed by MTV controversy
In the modern (mis)information era, public relations has changed from a hassle typically tossed to the side 'til bad news arises, to a demanding necessity where your job is to prevent strife before it occurs. Slacking can cause a brushfire that one has but a single extinguisher to put out.
Which brings us to an example of such unfortunate episodes: Furlandia, the third new furry convention to spawn in the past two months. This one was held in Portland, Oregon. 270 showed up and over $1,000 was donated to PAW Team, which provides veterinary care for the pets of impoverished locals. The donation comes with an asterisk, though, as it came from MTV; fans threw in $6. [Update: Comments suggest this only reflects Sunday's count.]
I was not at the convention; however, I know some who were, and I’ve looked into all sides with an open mind and am giving my best assessment. Most importantly: I’m evaluating why this incident blew up as it did, so that future convention leaders can avoid undue stress.
First year hiccups
Before we get to the meat and potatoes of the problem, here's some appetizers that arose before the MTV crew even showed up.
While the convention was slated to go for three days, as most do, a last-minute announcement was made that only a dance was to occur on Friday, and the dealer’s den would not be opened. The announcement was only made via Twitter, on the Thursday before the convention - and those participating in the den were not informed by other means. (A reliable source also says there was no way for dealers to identify minors.)
While the dealer’s den is the smallest I’ve ever seen (via photo), security was an issue. An artist said the room was left unguarded and open at one point. Another Twitter user said they were able to enter to pick up an order and leave without their convention badge.
The convention's Twitter feed was not as informative the staff’s own personal feeds. There were only two announcements on @Furlandia between the convention's start and its end: Nordguard cards available and the Sibe panel.
Said panel also sparked a small controversy, given its host's reputation within the fandom — however, if one is to host a infamous individual, it’s not a bad idea to make them feel they’re contributing without giving them too much power. It’ll keep them from trying to draw attention to themselves by causing trouble and they’ll defend you for giving them a chance. Maybe they’ll see other ways to contribute to the group that can draw positive attention to oneself, or strive to move beyond past bad behavior? Lo and behold; no behavioral issues were reported from Sibe, and no bans presented. He enjoyed Furlandia, too, so he’ll probably try to avoid trouble there in the future so as not to risk being removed.
Still, that @Furlandia only advertised his panel suggested to outsiders that there was little more to the con than a panellist with a clouded past. Once again, it all falls on communication: tell us more about what’s going on, and where. Most attendees can’t tell the staff members by name, let alone their Twitter handles; talking on those is not talking to the con. If you’ve made a centralized feed, why not use it to its fullest extent?
MTV arrives on the scene
Eventually the lack of communication both within the convention and with the outside fandom came to a head. Attendees started to wonder what was going on when production teams and cameras began to show up. It didn’t take long for someone to announce that MTV had arrived. According to the PR director, an announcement had been made at opening ceremonies; no written notification had been given.
For those yet unaware, furries and Viacom have gotten along as well as a cattle rancher and PETA. Our first encounters were with MTV's Sex2K, and of course CSI. Anyone with any knowledge of media history within the fandom would have been able to see this storm a mile off.
Worse, while Furlandia staff accused Twitter users of misinformation, they (perhaps accidentally) engaged in it themselves. On April 19, they responded to a tweet from Sibe concerning rumors of MTV's attendance, insinuating that they’d be escorted off. Long story short, they were not, because the star of their upcoming furry show was none other than their head of PR. He gives his take on the criticisms here. MTV was there to cover the convention logistics, and himself, not the convention-goers. Those who wanted to allow themselves to be filmed had to sign a wavier.
So why the blow up? Because this was not communicated effectively to the public until after the convention. Without information, people filled in the blanks with what would always be the worse case scenario. Saph knew that MTV was filming him prior to the convention, and he had to have known he was going to have at the convention to cover it as part of his biography. In fact the volunteer coordinator post-convention statement shows private meetings for two months prior to the convention. However, while announcing it at the opening ceremony there was no other warning to convention-goers that MTV was going to be present under strict guidelines. In fact, @Furlandia still insinuated they were NOT invited. Not everyone is a fan of surprises, and some attendees were probably a bit miffed at opening ceremonies – that is, if they were there at all.
How will MTV's final product impact the fandom? Well, it’s a roll of the dice. Worse case: this is only the beginning of the headaches for Saph. If the biography harms the fandom, he and Furlandia will probably suffer. However, I think he might have lucked out. My guess is Viacom is desperate to redeem themselves to furries. All these conventions have shut them out because of the history we have with them. They may see this as an opportunity to earn the fandom’s trust – and if they have any brains left, they’ll know this ‘in’ is an opportunity. Furlandia is the first in a long while to say ‘yes’. What interest would it be of MTV’s to destroy it? It would only ensure their banishment from every furry convention, especially new ones. Furlandia is their last hope. (If any of the True Life crew are reading this, keep that in mind as you go to the editing boards.)
MTV could be seen to be like Sibe. They’re going to behave themselves because this convention was nice to them, and they've been barred from others. Both may be looking to work their way back to some neutrality with the fandom and shake off their infamy. If that is the case, they both face a long and arduous journey — and I wish them luck in it.
Advice for con-runners
Furlandia says it is go for next year; that it’ll be better, and do better. I do hope that is the case, but there is a lot to be done. The first step is to admit there were issues, and not joke that these were all the manifestation of over-active imaginations. Some may have been; but they would not have even started had misinformation not sprouted from the lack of information. You can’t blame a higher-than-expected turnout; other first-time conventions this year had that, but it didn’t lead to similar controversy.
That leap from a meet to a convention is a world of difference. The furry world is watching: artists want to sell their swag at a place close to home to cut travel costs, fans are looking for great individuals to hang out with (thought this is usually never an issue with a furry convention), and fun events to pass the time with. You need to balance these needs with those of your hotel and the region – and not steal the spotlight (purposefully or accidentally). Let it be their convention, not yours. It’s thankless work when done right, and scathing when done wrong.
No one’s saying it’s easy. I’ve listened to stories from con chairs who’ve poured their heart and souls into their events. Furries want to see these be successful, which is why we are vocal when we see things going wrong. It’s not just drama; it’s to prevent repeat mistakes.
There are two types of articles about conventions on WikiFur: those that say “is”, and those that say “was”. Both faced issues; took hits and criticism. The key is being able to detect what the actual problems are (distinguished from those insignificant to the running of the convention), and solve them — which starts by listening to those who offer advice, even if they don’t do it in an elegant or even nice fashion.
Many furs who were giving you flack, sure, they don’t care if you fail or not. They already have their events. Here’s the thing, though; local conventions are important, and not just to those that run them. They are important for showing local citizens what our fandom is all about (though not necessarily the world via MTV). They are important because they local furs feel comfortable being a fur amongst those who aren’t. They are important because not everyone can make the haul to Anthrocon, or Midwest FurFest, or even RainFurrest. They are counting on you.
They count on you to make those “who didn’t show up” this year and who you say have “no right to judge” comfortable enough to show up. Especially the industrious artists and crafters who draw fans in. To make sure there is sufficient cashflow to keep things going. Furlandia broke even this year, which is OK. Staff say they sacrificed their own bank accounts, which shows commitment. However, you can’t rely on that forever. When your pockets run dry trying to keep the con alive without the artists and registrations to support it, who can locals turn to for their events?
So trust me when I say this: Work on communication: with your staff, with the hotel, with the furries at the convention and not. Don’t be afraid to ask those with more experience for advice. I offered some basic tips here; it’s up to you to shrug them off or incorporate them. More advanced logistics are beyond my ability. Hopefully MTV will allow you a chance to improve your future cons and not drag you into the pits of infamy.
As for others thinking of running their own conventions: Take your time. Don’t say “I want to do a convention.” and then try to do one that year. Take at least a full year to prepare yourself and your team. Give yourself time to do research on hotels and scour the town for good locales. Attendees are not going to care if you only had three months. They’re paying to be there. They’re only going to see the end result and not all will give a con a second chance if things messed up due to rushing. This is true of everything in the business world, and conventions are a business. Viacom can tell you; furries aren’t quick to forgive, and first impressions are lasting. I leave you with this quote from Rocky Balboa:
Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place and it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't how hard you hit; it's about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward. How much you can take, and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done. Now, if you know what you're worth, then go out and get what you're worth. But you gotta be willing to take the hit, and not pointing fingers saying you ain't where you are because of him, or her, or anybody. Cowards do that and that ain't you. You're better than that!
For those who attended and want to share their thoughts and stories, please do so below. What was your favorite thing? What could use work? I’d love to hear more first-hand accounts, and I think it’d be good for those who haven't looked into the opinions spread out all over the place to put them into one centralized location. Lastly, here’s to a better 2014! I wish the Portland team luck on their future endeavors.