Of Background Checks & Reputation Protection

Magnifying GlassESPN has had a bit of an “unfortunate incident” revealed in just the last few days, which—as of my writing this piece—doesn’t appear to be widely reported.  The security angle and ramifications are what caught my eye and why I thought readers might learn a bit from the story.

In a nutshell, a columnist writing for ESPN for the last several months allegedly used her ESPN work/status to swindle multiple individuals out of significant sums of money and, in one case, a social media account.  While she was reportedly dropped from ESPN two days ago, it leaves me wondering:  When hiring and contracting staff how much background screening and due diligence is enough?  What role should security professionals play?  Which areas of the company are responsible for hiring policy on these details?  Security?  Human Resources? Legal?

I ask these questions because there is some reason to believe that the columnist in this case had many red flags raised about her identity and background at multiple employers before going to work writing for ESPN.

Just to be clear:  To put the security issue in context, I’m summarizing the story from another website that originally broke the story.  If you get a chance read the entire story at this link.

The focus of their story is on a young writer, Sarah Phillips.  Over a year ago, Sarah began writing a column on the gambling website Covers.com.  During that time-frame there were many questions about her identity and varied photos that accompanied her byline and column profile.  Her editor at that job never met his columnist in person and felt many of the questions being raised by others were out of jealousy (that a young female was so adept at gambling coverage).

Sarah Phillips left that column in September to begin writing for ESPN.com.  It is reported that she never met her new editor at ESPN in person and had already established a semi-celebrity like status that may have played a role in ESPN editor Lynn Hoppes bringing her aboard.  (This is where I began to wonder about ESPN and the security angle of background checks and screening.)

Even after the move to ESPN, questions about the dissimilarities of her photos persisted.  In fact the site that broke the story is reporting ‘today’ that the Covers.com photo was an old classmate—not Sarah.  Additionally, they are now reporting that some of the actual content from her online writing may really be from her alleged boyfriend—who seemed to be more knowledgeable about sports (and betting) than Sarah.

Two Sarah Phillips?But Sarah Phillips wrote for ESPN for the last five months, appearing on the ESPN playbook (previously Page 2) site along with other columnists.  That is, until earlier this week when they parted ways—presumably out of concern for their brand and her suspect integrity.

ESPN Screenshot

Again, I’m not going into the details you can read elsewhere,  as I want to keep our focus on the security side of the hiring/on-boarding process, including background checks—as mentioned when I began this article.  To me, ‘That’ is the story on the security side.   

But know that there are many other stories here, including the value—the dollar value—of social media including Twitter followers and Facebook “Likes” and more—in many ways those items were the alleged scams and targets of how Sarah abused her ESPN credentials/status in an attempt to build a social media following that could be monetized.

So, Security hat firmly on; how do you protect your company, your brand, your reputation, and your customer base when you hire or bring aboard individuals who are high profile contributors to your company?  As I see it, that is what ESPN faced with allowing Sarah Phillips to write for them.

We can say, “Yes, but where do you draw the line?”  Good question, but I’d say as Security Professionals, we have to draw it out further from our business core than ever before—especially if business is global, involves social media, and relies on an army of talented professionals to inform your customer base on every sport under the sun.

I say that because this is a great example of how business has changed and, at least in my opinion, security may be huffing and puffing to keep up.  Sure, the world uses more freelancers than ever before—especially in media circles—that is well known.  But, can a freelancer hurt your brand, customer base, and company as quickly as a staff member?  I would say, “Yes.” 

Related to this issue; Social Media is here to stay.  You don’t have to be a media company like ESPN to recognize that.  For Manufacturers, Healthcare Institutions, Insurance Companies, Educational Institutions, Utilities, and the list goes on….no matter your business, social media is now playing a major role in your communications and marketing efforts—and is often outsourced.  This may be a good time to review those agencies and freelancers who are representing YOUR brand in the marketplace.  If security isn’t doing it, who is?

As I see it, the real issues for security professionals include:  one, background screening; and two, reputation protection.

This piece is not written to be a tutorial on either one, but rather to shine a light on the need to focus security attention to both topics.

Lastly, I also want to state I don’t know what ESPN did in this case for background screening; nor am I suggesting they could have prevented being cast in the bad light they now find themselves in as a result of this columnist, Sarah Phillips. Maybe they could have connected the dots with more screening, but maybe they had the screening and the dots just didn’t come up.

I did reach out to them with several questions for this article, but received a “No Comment” from their Global Security Department.  Under the circumstances, were I in their shoes, I also may have reserved comment—so that was not unexpected.

I hope this article gives Security Professionals some pause regarding their background screening and the value of corporate reputation.  I am curious if other security programs have modified their screening programs in light of changing business conditions, and if so, what those modifications have involved.  Please share your experiences in the comments.

About Vince Regan

Vince Regan, CPP, PSP, PCI is one of the most highly credentialed security professionals in the world. As Voice of Security President, he works full time to inform and educate colleagues in the security industry.

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