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.


  1. the quality of the service is not the issue. I agree that the company provides a good service to customers (although it would be better if callers knew their voicemail recording might be heard by a third party before they deposit a message).

    I would also contend that this is not just a matter of bad PR. The PR team may not have had the option of telling the truth, assuming they knew the truth, of the level of (non) automation (whatever that level is), and that's because the PR and social media audience is not the only audience...

    There is another constituency, and that is investors. Telling the truth, if the truth is that the level of automation is low, would likely have been a bad thing for investors to hear, because one can assume that investors invested in SpinVox because it had intellectual property around its automation technology and because that technology gave it competitive advantages and the ability to operate profitably.

    So if the truth is low automation (and high use of human transcription), the recommended transparent PR strategy that may be good for PR, might be quite bad for investor relations!! It also would not be a good message for mobile network operator customers who don't want to market a solution to their customers if the vendor's business model is financially unsustainable for a mass market service.

  2. Thanks, anonymous

    I did have a line in there about investors but took it out as I didn't want to speculate too much as to why SpinVox hasn't been straight up.

    Interesting point about how much say the PR team had - I certainly do NOT envy their position right now and just shows how quickly a firm can go from darling to cartoon villian.

  3. New candidate for worse PR move ever.

    PR team, through official representative, @whatleydude just tweeted "Whatleydude: Egyptian Call Centre: http://bit.ly/O9nuU (note: NOT Sweatshop)" Then he claims that he got the image via Google. Does this mean that he doesn't have access to real company info on their call centers? Is this transparency or deception?

    Also, it appears that a SpinVox employee (@delvy) is astroturfing again. His twitter profile says he is a SpinVoxer, but does mean he is a customer or an employee? And if he is an employee, why is the company using this channel during official radio silence rather than direct and transparent PR communication?

  4. interesting, I think there's more to come out of this. Is it the first real PR 'car crash' in the Twitter era (in the UK, at least)? makes for intriguing reading...

  5. I completely agree with anon2 - the use of Twitter for (almost entirely non-professional) messages has been the worst of all the mistakes they have made. Twitter car crash, for sure.

  6. @delvy is a SpinVox employee, has been there a long time.

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