Creeping, Slow-Burn and Sudden Crises

By Jonathan Bernstein

Crises can be divided into three categories:

1. Creeping Crises – foreshadowed by a series of events that decision makers don’t view as part of a pattern.

2. Slow-Burn Crises – some advance warning, before the situation has caused any actual damage.

3. Sudden Crises – damage has already occurred and will get worse the longer it takes to respond.

It is not uncommon for what seems to be a sudden crisis to have actually, first, been a creeping crisis that was not detected. Appropriate measures, early in the process, can often prevent or, at least, minimize the damage from slow-burn and sudden crises.

Below are some examples from the healthcare industry. From this, readers in other industries should be able to develop comparable lists.

1. Creeping Crises

  • Lack of a rumor-control system, resulting in damaging rumors.
  • Inadequate preparation for partial or complete business interruption.
  • Inadequate steps to protect life and property in the event of emergencies.
  • Inadequate two-way communication with all audiences, internal and external.

2. Slow-Burn Crises

  • Internet activism
  • Most lawsuits.
  • Most discrimination complaints.
  • Company reputation
  • Lack of regulatory compliance – safety, immigration, environment, hiring, permits, etc.
  • Major operational decisions that may distress any important audience, internal or external.
  • Local/state/national governmental actions that negatively impact operations.
  • Official/governmental investigations involving your healthcare organization and/or any of its employees.
  • Labor unrest.
  • Sudden management changes – voluntary or involuntary.
  • Marketing misrepresentation.

3. Sudden Crises

  • Patient death – Your healthcare organization perceived to be liable in some way.
  • Patient condition worsened – Your healthcare organization perceived to be liable in some way.
  • Serious on-site accident.
  • Insane/dangerous behavior by anyone at a location controlled by your healthcare organization.
  • Criminal activity at a company site and/or committed by company employees.
  • Lawsuits with no advance notice or clue whatsoever.
  • Natural disasters.
  • Loss of workplace/business interruption (for any reason).
  • Fires.
  • Perceptions of significant impropriety that damage reputation and/or result in legal liability, e.g., publicized involvement of company employee in a group or activity perceived to be a threat to the U.S. government or society; inappropriate comments by a “loose cannon;” business activities not officially authorized by management.

Typically, reviewing a list like this triggers thoughts of other situations that need to be addressed during the crisis planning process. Know what constitutes a creeping, slow-burn or sudden crisis for your organization and have plans in place to address them!


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