The Differences between Slow-burn Crises and Acute Crises

Essay, 2013

15 Pages




Crises have become more numerous, visible and calamitous and organisations have no choice but to accept them as an inescapable reality that must be factored into their planning and decision making. (Lerbinger, 1997).

Crises pose challenges any organization can face, and many fail to respond (Boin, 2010: 2-3). Wise organizations prepare for crises, knowing that it will befall them (Coombs, 2012: 3). Events leading to a crisis can be manifold. Some appear suddenly (Barton, 2001: 23), others offer considerable warning, providing early-warning indicators are recognized (Starbuck and Hedberg, 2001: 343). Crisis management strategies should envisage preparing organizations for acute and slow-burn crises alike (Coombs, 2012: 6-7). However, given the amount of attention that high-impact, low-frequency events receive, many organizations’ crisis management strategies focus is on response to an acute crisis rather than the identification and prevention of a slow-burn crisis. Acute, event based crises, with an initiating trigger event and a clearly identifiable physical boundary, are the most common type of crises (Institute of Lifelong Learning (2012) Module 6, Unit 4: 4.4). Slow-burn crises have a different nature. Their low intensity attributes contribute to the situation that this type of crisis remains often unrecognised until it is too late to implement effective control measures (Institute of Lifelong Learning (2012) Module 6, Unit 4: 4.5).

This essay will demonstrate that acute and slow-burn crises pose fundamentally different challenges on the structural and physical levels and therefore require different short and long-term actions orchestrated by distinct crisis management strategies. For this purpose, an example will be utilized, comparing management strategies to manage hepatitis C (HCV) with an acute crisis.

The essay is divided into five main sections. Following the introduction, key terms in use throughout the essay such as crisis, acute and slow-burn crisis and crisis management are defined. The third section is comprised of key risk theories, dealing in particular with the issue of risk perception and the dichotomy between anticipation and resilience. These will then be used to build a conceptual framework that demonstrates that different strategies are necessary to manage a slow-burn and an acute crisis. Following the conceptual framework, HCV as an example of a slow-burn crisis is introduced. The analytical part of the paper forms the fourth section in which the essay will discuss and show the differences among strategies to manage HCV and an acute crisis. The essay concludes showing that crisis management strategies deployed to manage slow-burn and acute crises are both based on the same crisis management process, however being faced with a particular type of crisis, strategies must be adapted to be effective.

To begin answering the essay question and establish a common understanding, the essay continues defining key terms.



A crisis can occur in a number contexts, which makes a concise single definition hard to attain (Borodzicz, 2005: 77). Coombs provides a general definition of crisis, describing it as an event or a series of events that “can seriously impact an organization’s performance and generate negative outcomes” (Coombs, 2012: 2). Shrivastava et al. (1988: 285) provide a more comprehensive definition, taking sociological and organizational aspects into account. They explain crisis as "organizationally based disasters which cause extensive damage and social disruption, involve multiple stakeholders, and unfold through complex technological, organizational and social processes" (Shrivastava et al., 1988: 285). Considering the comprehensiveness of the definition and its applicability to acute and slow-burn crisis this definition will be adopted for the purpose of the essay. Crises can be distinguished based on a number of aspects. Borodzicz (2005: 78) argues that a clear distinction should be made between crises types so to identify distinct response requirements. A number of relevant authors identify crises types based on gestation periods.

Acute Crisis

‘Exploding’ and ‘sudden’ are terms utilized by relevant authors to explain crisis with acute implications (Linke, 1989; Moore and Seymour, 2005). Typically, acute crisis are preceded by sudden trigger events identifiable according to place, time, and agents (Shrivastava et al., 1988: 288) causing instantaneous damages (Moore and Seymour, 2005: 95). An important aspect of acute crisis is that they "do not have a warning phase" (Nikolaev, 2012: 265). Pearson and Clair consolidate several authors’ views on acute crisis and explain it as a "low-probability, high-impact event that threatens the viability of the organization and is characterized by ambiguity of cause, effect, and means of resolution, as well as by a belief that decisions must be made swiftly" (Pearson and Clair, 1998: 60). The definition shows that acute crises carry characteristics of emergencies, which are also mostly contained within certain geographical boundaries, are subject to a limited timeframe and require a rapid response to limit human and material damages (Borodzciz, 2005: 76). However, what distinguishes an acute crisis from an ‘everyday’ emergency is that they pose additional risks for decision makers due to an ambiguity of cause and further complicating factors (Borodzciz, 2005: 79). Although, these factors make a standard, structured response to an acute crisis more difficult, most are still responded to by emergency services (Institute of Lifelong Learning (2012) Module 6, Unit 4: 4.6 - 4.7).

Slow-Burn Crisis

Slow burn crises differ from acute crises in that they gradually develop over a period of time before they harm an organization or negatively affect societies in the process (Moore and Seymour, 2005: 34). There are several subtypes of slow-burn crisis, which include (1) slow-onset crisis, (2) long-wave crisis and (3) low-intensity crisis (Institute of Lifelong Learning (2012) Module 6, Unit 4: 4.4 – 4.9).

Examples of slow-onset crisis include famine caused by drought and crop failure. Typically, during this subtype of slow-burn crisis, early-warning indicators and likely results can be recognized beforehand. However, the main difference to an acute crisis is that during a slow-onset crisis the sheer scale of events inhibits an effective response by implementation of standard procedures (Institute of Lifelong Learning (2012) Module 6, Unit 4: 4.5).

Examples for long-wave crises include diseases such as the HIV/AIDS pandemic. A main feature of this subtype of slow-burn crisis is that it barely displays a single, clearly identifiable triggering event. This hinders a clear recognition of cause(s) and consequence(s), which again inhibits a response similar to an emergency (Institute of Lifelong Learning (2012) Module 6, Unit 4: 4.5).

Low-intensity crisis are the third subtype of slow-burn crisis. There are two variations of low-intensity crises. The first variant results from a triggering event with geographically or timely diffused effects leading to a low-intensity crisis. The second variant is not geographically limited and gradually evolves from single, minor incidents, which build up before overloading a system and thus result in the crisis (Institute of Lifelong Learning (2012) Module 6, Unit 4: 4.9). An example for this type represents the slow-burn HCV crisis in the UK, which gradually increases its burden on the National Health Service. Both variations differ from acute crisis insofar as they cannot be contained utilizing standard response measures because they pose challenges in terms of the recognition required to mobilise emergency services (Borodzicz, 2005: 175; Institute of Lifelong Learning (2012) Module 6, Unit 4: 4.7 - 4.8).


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