Toxic chemical spills, product tampering, nuclear accidents and natural disasters have signaled one thing to corporate America in the past decade: The need to be prepared.

The Corporate Response Group Inc., a Washington-based crisis-management firm, recently was formed by Robert S. Wilkerson, who has more 20 years experience in corporate and government crisis management, to handle such problems.

CRG is designed to help companies anticipate, plan for, persevere through, and emerge from crises with minimal damage to their images and financial bases. CRG offers companies help in coping with a variety of problems, including product failures, natural disasters, technological emergencies and international political unrest, Wilkerson said.

"Crisis or contingency planning is contemplating those things that can go wrong that would fundamentally alter the way your corporation handles business, and developing management capabilities and options to cope with that crisis," Wilkerson said.

Among 10 full-time employees and 35 associates at CRG, there are a number who have firsthand experience dealing with such incidents as the eruption of Mount St. Helens, Three Mile Island, the 1979 national truck strike, and the Mariel boatlift, not to mention "innumerable hurricanes, floods, and groundwater contaminations," Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson was chief of the technological hazards division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the past 3 1/2 years. While there, he did public safety work at nuclear power plants and chemical industrial sites.

Prior to that, he spent seven years as Florida's senior crisis manager, dealing with civil disorders, refugee emergencies, economic upheavals and natural disasters.

A Western Union study conducted in May 1987 found that only 57 percent of Fortune 1000 industrial and Fortune 500 service companies surveyed had an operational plan for crisis communication or a plan for the rapid dissemination of information in the event of a crisis.

According to Wilkerson, the most important aspect of handling a crisis is not only public relations and dealing with the sometimes "hostile press," but also balance. "To simply speak to the press is ineffective," he said. "We think it's extremely important to train the team behind the spokesperson."

And while many companies or private consultants offer some components of crisis management, CRG's approach is to prepare for a potential crisis from many angles.

When CRG is hired, it audits a corporation's management practices to determine its vulnerabilities, then develops a crisis management program to fit it's needs.

CRG then writes a "crisis plan" to bring together the company's accountants, legal staff, public relations department and management so they can make decisions quickly.

The cost for CRG's crisis planning ranges from $20,000 for a small corporation to $100,000 for an international firm, according to Wilkerson. And while crisis management was once exclusively a concern of large firms, Wilkerson said that in the past year even small businesses have become what he calls an "extremely receptive" market.

Wilkerson declined to name his company's clients for confidentiality reasons, but he said they come from throughout the U.S. and the world. International clients often run the risk of operating in a country where a sudden change in the government or laws may jeopardize the way the company functions, Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson sees crisis management as perhaps the most demanding challenge for corporate managers. However, he said, citing Johnson & Johnson's widely applauded handling of the Tylenol tampering cases several years ago, "It may sound heretical, but with proper management, a corporation can actually emerge from a crisis with its reputation enhanced."