31.7.09

Spinning Out of Control: Lessons We Can Learn From SpinVox


The current media frenzy over voice-to-text conversion service SpinVox and its apparent use of human translators over its ‘top secret’ technology is fascinating, certainly the Twittersphere thinks so. When the dust settles I think the SpinVox ‘translatorgate’ saga will go down in PR history and training sessions for years to come as an example of how not to do PR.

I met various, SpinVox team members at Mobile World Congress earlier this year in Barcelona and I thought they were thoroughly nice people, but I must say that I think SpinVox and its team got it wrong when handling the BBC revelations. How? By not being clear on how SpinVox works and by picking a fight with the media.

When the story first broke last Thursday that much of SpinVox’s Voice Message Conversion System (VMCS) was actually human-based, not a patent-heavy technical nirvana that bigger, richer IT firms have failed to even get close to, the company went on the defensive – refuting claims – then the offensive – apparently accusing critics of jealousy. You’ve got to respect the fighting spirit that you’d expect from a bold, entrepreneurial firm, but this just doesn’t look good.

Brand Offensive

Let’s look at my first point – how SpinVox worked. From the outset SpinVox focussed on its technology and that its intuitiveness was the key to its success, when it has transpired since that people in call centres around the world were doing a great deal of the legwork…or fingerwork, I should say. Why not put it on the line from the start and package SpinVox as a service which quickly converts voice to text using both humans and technology to get the job done? I imagine that would have raised concerns over data protection and privacy.

But the lesson here is that firms cannot believe that they can be anything other than transparent, as they’ll only be found out in the long run.

Sleeping Dogs


Note BBC technology blogger Rory Cellan-Jones’ opening line this week: “I was not intending to return to our story about Spinvox…”, but then SpinVox had decided to pick apart the BBC’s allegations and refute them. This is always a risky business, especially when you’ve already issued a statement. Did they think a journalist of Cellan-Jones’ calibre would simply take SpinVox’s word for it? Nope. More bad publicity.

The lesson here? Knowing when to quit when you’re ahead is important, similarly it’s also the case when you’re behind. As a result, rather than die down the story gained new legs and ran a little further.

I actually really like SpinVox and the service it offers. I think it’s a great idea – however it’s done, by technology or humans, or both. Thousands of families in challenged countries are dependent on the work that SpinVox puts their way so there’s another plus. I hope the firm works through its current problems but, boy, has it been a stinking couple of weeks for SpinVox.

30.7.09

Pulling the grass out from under the organic industry


Yesterday's Food Standards Agency report found that organic vegetables aren't necessarily healthier for people to eat than normal vegetables. Apparently, the vitamin and mineral content is the same as in conventional vegetables.

So what?

This report got enough negative media attention, it could single-handedly quash the nascent organic industry. I woe the day my supermarket's organic section shrinks even further. What a huge, massive shame. The main reason for buying organic is not to fulfil some pipe dream that one is going to get super charged with vitamins. Vegetables already have amazing nutritional benefits that one shouldn't live without, and expecting organic vegetables and fruits to have 'more' is just quack science. The point of buying organic is that small goal called 'saving our planet,' or how about 'treating farm animals with humanity.' Not to mention 'fighting the case of the small farmer,' 'defending our precious farmland against the negative effects of intensive farming' and 'not wanting our nice, vitamin-filled fruit to be covered in a white ash of pesticides.'

During the BBC's broadcast coverage last night, out of an approximately 1 minute long piece, these other positive impacts of organic were only mentioned in the last 2 seconds and only the environmental benefit was mentioned.

Congratulations to the media, who have (largely) focused yet again on the wrong headline and irresponsibly reported a story with the power to kill an industry that has done nothing but good things for our communities.

It cannot feel good to go home at the end of the day, as a journalist, knowing how the power of your pen can be so perverse at times.

28.7.09

Much a Flu About Nothing?


If you believed some of the papers this weekend you’d think the world is about to end. The cause? swine flu, what else? Speaking to a GP this weekend – on a social basis – I conveyed to him that I simply cannot get excited or worried about swine flu and asked him for the ‘view from the coalface’, which stands in complete contrast to the majority of media reports. I believe the media has contributed greatly to the public hysteria, er, I mean, interest in swine flu.

According to this GP, ‘normal flu’ kills tens of thousands each year – healthy and weak alike - but no one’s death certificate ever reads ‘died of a cold’, it would be noted as ‘respiratory failure’ or ‘pneumonia’. In the winter of 1999-2000 some 90,000 Britons died of a common cold. Did you hear anything about an epidemic back then…? Anyone, anyone…Bueller?

No. I didn’t think so.

So while everyone’s busy criticising the diagnosis process, remember that GPs and call centre staff are under pressure to accurately diagnose swine flu. This could easily lead to misdiagnosis and the wrong prescription being issued when rest and relaxation would usually suffice.

While we’re on the subject of prescriptions, do you fancy taking the anti-viral Tamiflu? I invite you to check the recorded side effects before you do, which have been known to include everything from nausea and nightmares to the fatal Stevens-Johnson organ failure syndrome. Given the numbers that are anticipated to take Tamiflu you can bet we’ll hear stories for sure. And, by issuing Tamiflu early on in the process, swine flu may well develop resistance and render it useless in the long run.

I expect an increasingly desperate media to latch onto swine flu every time the economy provides signs of recovery or no MP has claimed for garden furniture in the last five days, but I think they’ve got to shoulder a lot of responsibility for the perception among the general public when what’s really needed – what journalists and editors who pride themselves on accuracy would promote – is perspective. While I’m not doubting swine flu is serious and it’s a tragedy when anyone dies, I won’t be listening to media advice on the subject because, quite frankly, they’ve cried wolf, and I’ll do what I would do for any other cold.

Here are a few of my favourite recent alarmist ‘Swine Flu Balls’ headlines:

Junkies and alcoholics ‘manning flu hotlines’ – The Sun, 24 July

Swine Flu: 160 Brits quarantined around the world as NHS faces crisis – The Mirror, 24 July

Swine Flu Nigel and the deadly handshake – Telegraph, 25 July

Swine flu pandemic could fuel rise in workplace litigation – Guardian, 27 July

24.7.09

Spinvox response - how to approach a media crisis


This is part 2 of a blog post we started yesterday, found here.

We aren't trying to attack Spinvox or kick them while we are down. One of our bloggers is a big fan of the service. However, the company's response during their media crisis is just too good a case study to pass up. This is one of the best examples I've seen in awhile of a technology company under fire, and maybe this story has been cooking for awhile, but for many readers, it came out of the blue. We can't resist but to analyse how the company has dealt with it.

And Spinvox brought a lot of this attention on itself by not responding for a whole day.

Last night, the company broke its silence on the TV news show SkyNews.com (that's what it's called - not a typo). And it did several more things wrong.

Here are the key elements that need to be in place to face a media crisis.

1. Act quickly. This means your management team needs to 'get along' and collaborate well on key messages. This is no time to show cracks. Waiting a day to respond shows cracks.
2. The PR team needs to be a driving force, not a team that's just along for the ride. There should be internal or external PR people ready to face a crisis by going on the offensive - quickly.
3. Any written response should be factual but should not read like classic corporate drivel, which is what Spinvox's blog post yesterday was.
4. The CEO should be offered up for comment, not a director of engineering as Spinvox offered. This is a defining moment in the company's history and no one other than the CEO is placed to deal with it.
5. The company should be extremely honest, and attack the allegations with numbers, statistics and facts. In this case, Spinvox's best response* (which we have yet to see) would be a graphical description of i) how many voicemails / what percentage are listened to ii) what sorts of info is usually in those voicemails - numbers, etc - that make it hard for the algorithms to work iii) exactly how their encryption engine works iv) exactly what the timeline of 'learning' looks like to prove that the 'learning' is actually that - and presumably over time decreases the number of VMs listened to.
*This is reprinted from our comments on Mobile Industry Review's insightful post about Spinvox from yesterday.
6. If a live broadcast is the first response, as with Spinvox on SkyNews.com last night, the spokesperson needs to come prepared with the above. Just giving vague statements like 'some voicemails are listened to' is merely dodging the issue and doesn't help fight the crisis.
7. Taking an attitude such as 'we're being attacked unnecessarily! Feel bad for us!" doesn't work and shouldn't even be considered.
8. The best PR team will view the crisis as an opportunity and figure out a way to make their offensive push messages that maybe weren't heard before.

If your PR team (and management team) is not able to withstand the pressure and deliver the above, you need to consider whether your technology company is prepared for a crisis.

23.7.09

Will Spinvox get its vox back?


It wasn't a good day for Spinvox, the voicemail speech-to-text company which was accused in a BBC article penned by Rory Cellan-Jones of some very serious data protection breaches.

Allegedly, rather than having ground-breaking technology that listens to spoken voicemails and converts them to text, the company has been paying countless call centre staff in South Africa and the Philippines to listen to at least some of the messages and translate them manually. Obviously this raises some eyebrows in terms of privacy implications and whether it meets the data protection act.

At the time of writing, Spinvox was radio silent, though the story was also picked up by Sky and is all over the Twittersphere.

Spinvox has no choice in this situation but to go on the offensive and prove the credibility of its technology. And it needs to be specific about how its algorithms work. Ambiguity will get the company nowhere at this stage.

There isn't much else to say at this point until they respond, but a point worth making is the age-old 'any PR is good PR' thinking. Many people who didn't know what Spinvox did, now do - and some of them won't care about Rupert on the street in South Africa hearing what their spouse picked up at the supermarket for dinner that night. Most of us receive voicemails so dull they would probably put the call centre staff to sleep rather than incite drama, though staff apparently claimed in Facebook group posts to hear death threats, sexual messages and all sorts.

Waiting to see what transpires.

UPDATE: According to Sky news Twitter correspondent Ruth Barnett, someone from Spinvox will be be on Sky News channel 501 at 7pmish tonight to talk about the issue. This is one interview we won't miss.

16.7.09

FT trying to teach an old dog new tricks

Old habits die hard and everyone knows it is pretty impossible to teach an old dog new tricks.

But the FT isn't past trying.

Financial Times editor Lionel Barber predicts that within a year most news sites will be charging for content. He's bedded in with Rupert Murdoch in their stance against 'free' and they are both (now) very outspoken that the free online newspaper content model is broken.

The trouble is, there is a world of difference between being annoyed at a business model you yourself had a hand in setting up, when you find it doesn't work, and changing that model when you've already trained your audience to expect something else.

Freesheets are marked by crappy, poorly researched journalism and they're, on the whole, bad for the media scene. If you want proper intelligent journalism you should need to pay a small fee and enable the journalists to eat. I get that side of the argument, I do, and I often make it myself. I also get the 'give bits away for free and then charge for heavy usage' model that the FT claims to have invented. Although I read lots of stories on the FT's website and never seem to have to pay.

And so the fact remains that only 1 per cent of users actually go on to pay for journalistic content. If the newspaper industry is serious about this battle against 'free,' they need to make that 1 per cent their worst enemy and do something very clever indeed to increase it. With the (very free) blogosphere breaking every major news story, the (very free) Google enabling access to news stories at the touch of a mouse, the (very free) digital media sector enabling news at a glance and making it possible to read nothing beyond headlines for your daily news diet, and kids in our societies being brought up on a diet of free, this is not a job I'd want to handle.

Furthermore, dare I say it, but in countries like the UK with socialised media (the Beeb's online news site) giving great content away for free to the taxpayer, and probably rightly so, it's never going to work. In the US, I think there is more of a fighting chance with independent regional papers leading the newspaper scene.

And at the end of the day, no one feels that bad for Murdoch or the big papers at the loss of their profit margins. But everyone mourns the loss of their local paper and the horrible impact that has on unwatched politicians free to play with information at their choosing, unmanned regulators and all the implications of the loss of an investigative press. It's the small, local papers that suffer and we suffer with them. And the primary reason for their downfall is not free content being available online, but the free classified advertising marketplace the internet creates.

What do you think?

10.7.09

Can PR Really Claim to Own Social Media?


This week I attended New Media Knowledge’s excellent debate on What Happens to TV? The crowd contained professionals from the whole spectrum of digital media: PRs, advertisers, recruiters, content makers, hosting providers, journalists, you name it. One of the themes that came out – particularly from the advertisers among the crowd – was ‘who owns social media?’

The answer, as I understood it, is that PR believes it owns social media within organisations. Is this justified or is the PR team looking for a raison d’etre to fill the void presented by a fast-disappearing print media?

Coincidentally, research group Forrester last month revealed its findings of a survey into how companies are structuring internally to deal with social media. It recommends a cross-functional team of marketing, PR, customer service and product departments – anything with a ‘customer touchpoint’. This is an interesting concept – with so many different interests to pursue could a cross-section like this work to good effect?

I’d really welcome some thoughts from PR people here as we’re in danger of experiencing our own ‘digital divide’ within our industry. There are the ‘old schoolers’ on one side, which provide the important traditional counsel and press relations but have little grasp of ‘the new marketing’, as Seth Godin calls it. On the other side you have the people that understand new media, many of whom may not have earned their spurs in the PR trade so can understand how to make a viral or how to build a social network, but may not understand brands or how to convince them to make the migration. This is because senior PR people are often the only ones that their clients – often old schoolers themselves – listen to. How will they respond to a young exec being wheeled out to tell them, with all their decades of marketing experience behind them, about how they should be marketing their company?

It’s a dilemma and that’s why I think you need a solid mix of the two – traditional PR and digital – to have a genuine impact. I’ve been there and I know that within PR agencies there are often only a few people that ‘get’ new and social media. Some may claim to have all their staff on Twitter, but what’s the good of that if they only log on once a week to promote a client press release (often to the same follow crowd) and then disappear again?

Can PR truly make a claim to own social media? I’m not sure it can in isolation. Digital agencies present a real threat as firms increasingly look to the Web for answers, but PR still has a massive contribution to make over brand management and information creation and distribution. I concur with Forrester’s assessment of the cross-functional internal system for social media and agree with its conclusion:

“The biggest challenge brands often have to overcome isn’t technology but managing cultural change within the enterprise. With an ever-increasing number of brands engaging in social media marketing in recent years, companies need to not only be properly budgeted but also well organised.”

What do you think?

8.7.09

Will TV Learn From Woolworth's?


Attendees at New Media Knowledge’s ‘What Happens to TV?’ debate last night were treated to some fantastic insights into the future of television. Although the likes of social network Bebo, news site Current TV and interactive Internet TV firm Quick TV were on hand to debate where TV is headed, there remained the conspicuous absence of any television channels. None apparently wanted to take part and who can blame them? I think it could have turned into a turkey shoot.

If you’ve ever read Seth Godin’s excellent Meatball Sundae then you’d know all about how difficult it is for ‘old’ companies to operate in the ‘new’ market. Godin argues that adding a web layer to an existing legacy set-up may not be enough to save the ‘old’ companies.

Looking at all the fantastic developments in TV in the post combined with the plummeting ad revenues that TV channels are suffering I can see a ‘Woolworths situation’ looming. In a nutshell, a huge and popular high street brand folded due to its inability to operate in the ‘new’ market, yet Web-savvy business visionaries managed to buy rights to that popular brand and do what Woolworths should have done 10 or 12 years ago anyway – and launch a user-friendly e-commerce site.

Sports channel Setanta just wound up in the UK and rumours abound about ITV’s prospects. I can see an established TV brand collapsing and being resurrected by ‘new’ marketing people. Likewise a colleague touted last night that the Independent – a big media brand that some argue has lost its way – could be bought by a new media agency and capitalise on the strength of its brand to take it in an entirely new direction.

We are really witnessing the shaking of the sieve here. It’ll be fascinating to see where we are this time next year.

3.7.09

Recipe for the next Twitter


As Twitter becomes less and less conversational and more and more "one-way broadcasting" we think the time is nigh for a next Twitter to barge into the scene.

If you don't agree with me that Twitter is becoming pretty one-way broadcasting in nature, rather than what it is at its best, a two-way conversational tool, consider the latest big Twitter stories that were covered in mainstream press:

-Iran conflict - citizen journalism to get the word out when 'real' journalism was stifled - one way broadcasting

-MJ death - yeah, sure, a lot of people Tweeted about it. A blog still broke the news, just like what would have happened with a big news event 8 years ago

-Habitat's horrendous attempt at a social media advertising campaign, highjacking stories of human suffering to push furniture - one way broadcasting on crack

-Ashton Kutcher's one million followers tirade - if he thinks it proves that he wants to converse with a million fans, rather than just broadcast to the world how 'special' he is, his ego has damaged his ability to reason

Finally, maybe it's just the people I follow, but I find that about half the Tweets coming up on my list are one-way thoughts rather than conversation starters or links to interesting stuff. And more importantly, when an interesting two-way conversation does come up between two of my followers, I have to click into one or both profiles to see what they said first, then click back for the next comment, then so on. I get lost and distracted while trying to trace a conversation.

A lot of early Twitterers were worried that as Twitter became more mainstream, it would somehow 'get worse.' I'm starting to believe it is getting worse. But I don't think the primary reason is that it's becoming mainstream.

The thing Twitter is doing wrong is not improving and evolving its UI to amplify the two-way conversational tools and steer it away from the one-way broadcasting direction. I still think Twitter is a breakthrough tool and I'm still a fan. And some of the one-way broadcasting, like the Iran conflict, is hugely important. But in some ways the UI is clunky and lacking basic functionality - especially for people who use it primarily as a two-way conversational tool. The stats are unclear about how many Twitterers use only the web UI and no other applications like Tweetdeck, but it seems to be at least half, if not the overwhelming majority. [Source for statistics: Hubspot, thanks to @handlewithcare, and Nick Burcher's blog, thanks to @crispyducks] Sorry to be harsh Twitter, but you are one of the most talked about technologies on the market today and your UI still needs a Tweetdeck for people who want more? Houston, we have a problem.

In my opinion, by not evolving the UI, Twitter has allowed a door to open for the next big thing to stir things up.

Here is our recipe for The Next Twitter - a groundbreaking conversation tool. If we had time to develop this ourselves, we would, but given how many proverbial pies we have our fingers in at the moment I'll give it to you as a freebie so someone brilliant can get it done:

1. Take the easiest web interface you can find, and make it interoperable with mobile (similar to what Twitter has done - we applaud them for their mastery of simplicity)

2. Shamelessly copy the follow / unfollow brilliance of Twitter. It's subtle and it works

3. Make search absolutely central to the tool. Don't confuse 'simple UI' with 'featureless' and don't kid yourself that any feature is more important than search. Twitter got this wrong in the beginning, and it still hasn't righted itself completely

4. Combine microblogging with elements of old-fashioned message boards, being the best of both, minus the annoying elements. Give people the ability to see entire conversations in a single glance on one screen, using plus/minus buttons so you can dig further into the conversations you want to see, and minus out of the ones you don't care about - all without having to navigate to a new screen. This seems technically hard to do, but I saw some truly innovative declarative UI programming technologies recently at our client Nokia Qt Software, and I have faith that techie geeks know how to do it and fit it all tidily on one screen

5. Initially, focus on convincing people how they can use it for their jobs and hobbies - Facebook's already got the masses' personal lives in the can

6. Excite and engage the media and PR scenes (much like what Twitter has done) to get the word out most quickly

7. Shamelessly market yourself as the thing that will unseat Twitter. The technology business world needs to take more lessons from athletes when it comes to bold, brash, super competitive statements

8. Be really strict with bots and spammers to keep them firmly out

9. Shake up the above ingredients, don't stir. Stick it in the oven and watch the world take notice

Do you agree with our recipe? Have other points to add? Let us know. We are dying to see this mystery tool be developed as we want to start using it now.