The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

January 21, 2013

Damage control: Ballard shares stories of time after news

By Robert Barron, Staff Writer
Enid News & Eagle

ENID, Okla. — Cherokee Ballard has learned a lot in the past few years, she told Enid Rotary Club members Monday.

Ballard, director of communications for ONEOK, is a former television news reporter who became spokeswoman for the state Medical Examiner’s Office in Oklahoma City, thinking it would be less stressful than news. Shortly after taking that job, the office lost national certification and several employees were fired, including the deputy chief medical examiner. That was followed by a lengthy backlog of cases.

Ballard eventually became temporary head of the office, and left that position to work for ONEOK. She said the transition was not difficult, because she had a good understanding of what it’s like to work in difficult situations. Those situations occasionally arise with ONEOK, the parent company of Oklahoma Natural Gas.

Ballard discussed some of the difficult experiences she had had working for ONG. One was an Oklahoma City apartment owner who requested the gas be turned off. The company honored the request, not knowing there still were people living in the apartments.

“It was November, just before Thanksgiving, and it was really cold,” she said.

The news media contacted her about the gas shutoff, and ONG faced bad publicity. She said the company could not immediately turn the heat back on, because the lines had to be inspected. Also, Oklahoma City would not assume responsibility, so ONG had to go through the city commission and a number of other steps to get the gas back on. She said it took several days.

Other incidents included when an ONG employee accidentally hit a water line that had been mismarked, and a fraudulent ONG worker who entered a garage to “read the meters” stole items from the house. Ballard said after that incident, ONG got out information to people on how to positively identify ONG employees. In each instance, the first person Ballard heard from was a member of the media.

Ballard said ONG has processed 65,000 rebates and is starting to receive compressed natural gas rebate requests. She said the CNG request offers are so popular, the company is behind in processing and has scaled the program back.

ONG offered a $2,500 rebate on the purchase of a dedicated CNG vehicle. A rebate of $1,500 was offered for purchase of a bi-fuel vehicle, and $2,500 was offered on a home fueling station.

Ballard said because the requests for rebates has been so high, she said, the rebate offers have been scaled back. Currently, there is a rebate of $1,000 for purchase of a car dedicated to using CNG fuel, $500 for purchase of a bi-fuel vehicle, and $1,000 for a home fueling station. Manufacturing of CNG vehicles is lagging, she said.

Ballard advised businesses owners who experience an event that causes them bad press to be honest about it.

“Every situation is different in a crisis. The most important thing is be honest, always tell the truth, and if you can give information, give it,” she said. “Be up front. People want that.”

ONG does not disclose the location or inspection schedule of high-level pipe lines, she said. She said some information must be guarded, and ONG is under guidelines from Homeland Security about keeping such information private.

Ballard also is co-author of Who Killed Kelsey?”, a book on child abuse using information she obtained while covering a child abuse trial from start to finish.