February 8, 2024
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How to Conduct Background Checks: A Guide for Production Pros

Paul Hatcher
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Paul Hatcher is the Founder & CEO of Merrill Herzog, a global crisis response and risk advisory firm. In the following article, he details the importance of background screenings, various types of background screenings, and how to conduct them for productions.

The need for accurate, timely, and cost-effective background checks is at an all-time high in the entertainment industry. The entire background screening process from limitations in providing accurate information to ever-changing compliance, makes it a challenge for production companies to understand what they truly need and how to avoid choosing the wrong vendor—a vendor who could miss something and get an entire show canceled six seasons in. 

Below, we’ll shed some light on the inner-workings of background screenings and provide information that can help production companies make more informed decisions when selecting their background screening partner.

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Why the industry needs to take background screenings seriously

Everyone has heard the alarming stories stemming from inadequate background checks in the entertainment industry. These range from discovering a reality show star secretly has a significant other, to primary talent making racially insensitive remarks. Often, such issues could have been unearthed with a thorough social media analysis. Regrettably, many background screening processes overlook such glaring and‌ high-risk information.

At Merrill Herzog, within our Production Risk Services division, we manage all facets of security. We recently collaborated with a production company that required background checks for crew members working near minors. During our standard screening, we uncovered that a video editor on the team was a registered sex offender. This revelation shocked both the production company and the Network, especially since the individual had passed background checks conducted by two different network-approved companies five times over the past three years.

This video editor had access to hundreds of hours of raw content featuring children. 

You might ask, how is this possible? 

The unfortunate truth is that most of the background screening industry resells data broker information and the accuracy of their background checks is wholly dependent on the accuracy of the third-party data. The way we mitigate this is to employ a full-time team of intelligence analysts and social media researchers who verify and validate any information reported, and then we save original copies of those files so they can be reviewed at a later date. The process may be tedious, but it is the only way to have accurate background checks. 

Ensure compliance with international background screenings

The rapid expansion of streaming services has significantly increased the demand for international content. At the same time, data privacy concerns have risen to the forefront. These developments pose numerous challenges for companies responsible for conducting background screenings, as well as for the production companies that rely on them. In the United States, the background screening industry is highly litigious, bound by stringent rules and regulations. Adhering to these standards is crucial, especially when the scope of operations extends beyond domestic borders.

Time and again, we encounter a common issue with international background screenings. Some companies claim they can provide the same level of scrutiny in these checks as in the U.S., even in countries where laws strictly limit or prohibit accessing criminal records for employment purposes. Staying aware of these ever-changing legal landscapes and compliance requirements is a formidable challenge. We work with one of the top attorneys in the credit reporting agency space and seek expert legal advice when there are new countries or changes to the rules and regulations. 

Production companies need to ask their background screening vendors how they ensure they are complying with International, federal, state, and local laws for the individuals and entities they are providing reports on

Different types of background checks that matter

Here are the critical types of background checks you’ll want to make sure you know. 

1. Individual background screening

This varies based upon the requirements of the network, but at a minimum it will include:

  • Identity
  • National ID or Social Security Number Verification
  • Date of Birth
  • Address History
  • State-Level Criminal History
  • Federal-Level Criminal History
  • Sex Offender Registry
  • Other categories may include civil records, litigation, online derogatory information, etc.

2. Business background screening

Last year, we had a production company that was doing a show featuring a real estate professional who had made so much money that he was now teaching people how to make millions. The production company also required a business background screen of any entities that would be featured on the show. While completing the business background screen, one of our analysts noticed that the individual had also owned a separate general contractor company (GC). Upon further investigation, it turned out that the individual’s road to self-made millions in real estate was riddled with complaints, violations, and litigation against his contracting company, which ultimately led to the revocation of his GC license the year prior.  

The moral of this story was that had we only conducted the background check on the individual, he would have had a very clean background screening report. We cannot stress the importance of having a full picture of the individuals and organizations production companies put on the screen, and business background screening is part of this.

3. Social media research

Social media research is still one of those gray areas that lack extensive regulatory compliance in the U.S. as it pertains to background screening. When proper social media research is conducted, it can unveil unknown truths about dark pasts, racism, violence, misogyny, etc. 

Social media research is the most powerful tool outside of in-person interviews to determine someone’s true nature prior to putting them on a production. 

How to perform a background check ethically & efficiently

To guarantee that your background screening partner provides compliant, accurate, and ethical checks, it's crucial to ask detailed questions about their process, and put these questions ‌in writing.

If you are unsure, the best advice is to seek counsel from an attorney that specializes in credit reporting agencies and background screening. 

The following questions are a great place to start.

Key questions to ask your background screening partner:

  • Do you use data-brokers in the collection of information provided in the background check(s)? If yes, how are they used?
  • Data broker information should only be used as a secondary source of information
  • Do you maintain original files of everything placed into the report and can I request copies?
  • If they do not, ask them why. This may protect both the background screening company and the production company during litigation.
  • Are you able to rush checks?
  • If a vendor states that they do not, because “the Courts don’t rush,” this should raise some additional questions. Yes, there are a number of locations where certain information is unavailable for short turn and may require additional steps like a manual inspection before release, but the majority do not. The key is to ask questions and understand why a check cannot be rushed the production requires it. 
  • How is your social media research conducted and how many hours do you spend on each report? 
  • If a company states that there are unlimited hours for a low-fixed price, this should be a red flag that they aren’t using analysts to go through the information or they could be using off-shore workers, which becomes a privacy concern. Always ask questions and only move forward with what you are comfortable with.
  • How do you guarantee that your background checks are provided in compliance with the latest rules and regulations?
  • Legal and ethical considerations

Leverage technology and expertise 

The importance of technology and expertise in background checks, especially in the entertainment industry, cannot be overstated due to the higher stakes and greater impact on the bottom line.

Tech stack

Your chosen vendor should use advanced technology, including web scrapers, pixel-recognition software, and voice and video recognition. They should be able to clearly explain how these tools are employed in their research. 

Expert team

Look for a team of well-trained analysts who know how to use these tools to amplify their research. 

At Merrill Herzog, we have a team of expert intelligence analysts who come out of the U.S. Intelligence Community and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and we empower them with a tech stack that is constantly being re-evaluated as new technologies and software emerge. 

Our team and research methodology were repurposed from previous lives where our analysts were making sense of information that would save lives or identify the location of some of the most dangerous people in the world. We believe this recipe leads to the most accurate background checks in the industry. 

Securing financial trust 

In production, where financial transactions and the handling of significant funds are commonplace, the reliability and integrity of the individuals involved are paramount. Background checks play a crucial role in ensuring that those responsible for managing a production's finances are trustworthy and have a history that supports their capacity to handle such responsibilities.

Wrapbook's emphasis on data security, including compliance with SOC 2 Type 2 standards, data encryption, and privacy-first data management, aligns with this need. By conducting thorough background checks and securing the sensitive data obtained through these checks, Wrapbook helps ensure that only individuals with the right credentials and a reliable background have access to critical financial information. This approach not only protects the production's finances but also upholds the integrity and security of the entire operation.

For a comprehensive understanding of how Wrapbook provides the utmost security for your sensitive data, explore their detailed Data Security practices.

Wrapping up

It’s critical for production companies to have access to accurate information promptly and within budget. Asking your vendor numerous, detailed questions is key; if answers seem unclear, keep asking. The background screening process can be complex, filled with jargon and lofty promises. However, there are exceptional companies in this field doing incredible work. The challenge lies in finding a vendor that works best for you and adheres to compliance standards. 

For any further queries or additional information, feel free to reach out to Merrill Herzog at info@merrillherzog.com.

Disclaimer

At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice.  You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.

About the author
Paul Hatcher

Paul Hatcher is the founder, CEO of Merrill Herzog, a global crisis response and risk advisory firm. Paul has 23 year’s experience between the U.S. Military, other government agencies, and the private sector with a majority of his career spent operational in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. Under Paul’s leadership Merrill Herzog is recognized as the premier risk advisory firm for the entertainment space and provides holistic risk solutions for productions globally. Merrill Herzog’s production risk services include background screening, risk assessments, safety & security, and crisis response.

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