WHEN disaster strikes, help is only a phone call away. This could be the slogan of disaster public relations (PR) specialists, who are happy to lend a hand when journalists attack like a pack of wild dogs. ''Supermarkets can have food tampering, property companies have buildings fall down - all companies have vulnerability to some degree,'' said Mr Tony Turner, chairman of Rowland Co. Mr Turner should know. His latest client is a certain Hongkong toy company, Kader, previously one of the lesser-known companies on the Hongkong exchange, which was been catapulted on to CNN, the BBC World Service, the Sydney Morning Herald and everywhereelse when its 40 per cent owned toy factory in Thailand burned down in the worst industrial fire on record. Disaster planning, or crisis management as its practitioners prefer, is a growing business in Hongkong, thanks to the growing consumer awareness in the region plus the ever-increasing hunger for news worldwide. There is no shortage of crises to manage. Apart from Kader's fire, Hongkong Bank suffered its second major terrorist attack in London, Cathay Pacific was badly mauled by a strike, and the Mass Transit Railway had a train split apart in mid-tunnel. Either using consultants or working on their own, some companies such as Cathay Pacific, now learning fast, have disaster plans which are well-oiled machines, ready to be switched into action at a moment's notice. Others talk slightly more vaguely of principles which they have decided on in advance, such as HSBC Holdings, parent of Hongkong Bank. At Cathay Pacific, newly-appointed public relations manager Phil Burford is busy rewriting his ''crisis management communications manual'' in the light of the strike. Training drills have been done annually for some time, with staff in the US even having had to cope with pseudo-journalists hired by consultants asking the sort of appalling questions journalists ask after plane crashes. ''They posed as journalists from Time, the Los Angeles Times and Newsweek and put them under as much pressure as possible,'' he said. The Mass Transit Railway Corp is another organisation with a well-greased disaster plan. Its four PR specialists are on call 24 hours a day and have been issued with mobile phones, and drills are conducted regularly, says PR manager Miranda Leung Chan Che-ming. ''It doesn't cost as much as you would think,'' she says. ''It's more the time needed.'' Directors and senior managers have had media training. This is in stark contrast to the government's plans if disaster strikes at the Daya Bay nuclear plant, which envisages helicopters with loudspeakers shouting warning messages at the New Territories. One of the rules of disaster planning is that the disaster that occurs is the one you didn't expect. ''If you knew you were going to be knocked down by a bus, you wouldn't be standing at that intersection,'' said Ms Anne Forrest, managing director of Forrest International and one of the territory's best-known crisis managers. Mr Burford, in his previous job with car maker Nissan in Australia, spent 12 months on a strategy to tell a suburb of Melbourne that its dominant employer was going to shut. The news leaked before he was ready and a communications disaster ensued - the employees found out about it in gigantic headlines in the local paper. Still, drills are useful. Mr Turner is even prepared to have his staff do what is known in newspaper circles as a ''doorstep job'', turning up en masse to break news of a horrible disaster and ask for an instant reaction, which will be videotaped and played back, so the executive can learn to do better if reality ever follows. This type of planning comes with a bill. Auditing procedures and producing guidelines will cost around $100,000, a big one-day simulation can cost as much, and a spot of executive training can cost $40,000. These are the rates charged by Rowland and are around the figures for the other four or five international agencies which claim some expertise in the field. The alternative is to find one in a hurry. This should be no problem - when disaster strikes they will ring you. ''It's not ambulance chasing,'' says Ms Forrest, who rang Kader's Dennis Ting Hok-shou when she heard news of the Thai fire. As an experienced professional she had no qualms about ringing on the bad news, although she admits that there would be some jobs she would refuse. ''I wouldn't take it if it was a whitewash,'' she says. The importance of telling the truth up front is stressed by everyone in the business. However, Ms Forrest adds: ''There are always at least two sides to every story.'' In the US, insurers may demand that crisis management procedures are in place before they will issue a policy, and Ms Forrest says that following the Exxon Valdez and other disasters, every oil tanker entering US waters must have a spill plan which includes public relations. She adds: ''The one subject that is coming into MBAs around the world is crisis communications.'' Mr Turner's company got the Kader job because of what he calls ''a word-of-mouth referral'' by a ''financial services company''. ''The very basics of crisis management is being honest,'' says Cathay's Mr Burford. ''If you try and hide the situation you only dig the hole deeper.'' Small statements and strategies can make a big difference. Cathay Pacific now admits its offer to donate profits to charity if the strikers went back to work was a mistake. According to Ms Forrest, Kader's statement while the ashes were still hot that the fire would have ''no substantial financial impact on the group'' was also a mistake, making it appear hard-hearted. ''What happens frequently is that executives with the company react immediately and forget the long term goals of the company,'' she says. This, she claims, is why outside consultants are useful. ''If it's your company, and your job, it's very hard to keep perspective.'' Meanwhile, the stock price could be sliding, as Kader Industrial's has been. Kader Industrial was Hongkong's worst performing stock on Friday, its last day of trade, falling 9.65 per cent in one day. Ms Forrest claims that executives should always talk about the worst possible outcome, then things should get better, rather than trying to minimise and see them get worse. Examples of the first method include Tylenol, the hugely-popular American headache tablet, which had some of its products poisoned and immediately told everyone to stop taking the tablets. In contrast, when the Three Mile Island reactor in the US developed problems, details dribbled out in a string of embarrassing clarifications that destroyed confidence in the plant's management. ''There has been an explosion of media competition,'' says Ms Forrest. ''Everyone has to get a story.'' The internationalisation of the media means that no longer can the chairman ring a few editors-cum-lunch companions and give them a few words of reassurance.