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The Crisis Approach
Arjen Boin, Paul ‘t Hart and Sanneke Kuipers
2.1 Introduction: Crisis and Disaster .................. 23
2.2 The Nature of Crisis........................................ 24
2.2.1 Theoretical Perspectives ........................ 25
2.3 The Ubiquity of Crisis .................................... 27
2.4 Crisis Management: Crucial Challenges
for Leadership.................................................. 29
2.4.1 Early Detection ...................................... 30
2.4.2 Sense Making ........................................ 30
2.4.3 Making Critical Decisions..................... 31
2.4.4 Crisis Coordination................................ 32
2.4.5 Meaning Making ................................... 32
2.4.6 Accounting for Performance ................. 33
2.4.7 Learning Lessons................................... 33
2.5 Conclusion: The Crisis Approach
Reconsidered .................................................... 34
References .................................................................. 35
2.1 Introduction: Crisis and Disaster
The terms ‘crisis’and disaster’are often used
synonymously. They are clearly related. Both
deal with events that belong in the ‘un-ness’
category: unexpected, undesirable, unimaginable
and often unmanageable situations (Hewitt,
1983). But in academic discourse, “crisis”and
“disaster”typically refer to different types of
situations, which prompt different questions that
require different theories. There is a disaster
research community and a more diffused group
of crisis researchers. The concepts ‘crisis’and
‘disaster’signal different research interests and
As researchers in both communities can and
do draw from each other’s work, we think it is
important to debate what these key concepts refer
to and how they inform research. In this chapter,
we focus on what we call the “crisis approach”in
academia and position it as a complementary
approach to the disaster paradigm presented in
this handbook (see in particular Chap. 1of this
Handbook). But ﬁrst we should discuss how the
We deﬁne a disaster as an episodic event that
is collectively construed as very harmful (cf.
Boin, 2005; Perry & Quarantelli, 2005). A dis-
aster refers to an event that causes human suf-
fering and infrastructural damage. Disaster
researchers used to predominantly study agents
of destruction that fall into the category of natural
forces such as ﬂoods, hurricanes, tsunamis and
earthquakes (Stallings, 2005). More recently,
they have begun to pay more attention to
“man-made”events such as terrorism, ethnic
conﬂicts, economic breakdowns and technologi-
cal failure (see Erikson, 1994; Kendra & Wach-
tendorf, 2016; Perry, this volume). Disaster
researchers are interested in prevention and mit-
igation of these events; they also study the con-
sequences of disasters.
Crisis researchers typically focus on a tem-
poral slice of the process through which a dis-
aster emerges and eventually fades. They are
mostly interested in the phase where intervention
A. Boin (&)S. Kuipers
Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands
Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands
©Springer International Publishing AG 2018
H. Rodríguez et al. (eds.), Handbook of Disaster Research, Handbooks of Sociology
and Social Research, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-63254-4_2
can still limit the effects of an emerging or
escalating incident. We deﬁne a crisis as a threat
that is perceived to be existential in one way or
another (cf. Rosenthal, Boin, & Comfort, 2001).
No disaster has materialized just yet, but the
prospect is imminent. Speaking of a crisis is in an
odd way deeply optimistic: it suggests that the
threat in question may still be averted if people,
communities, institutions, leaders or systems rise
to the challenge. That’s why the term “crisis”is
usually closely linked to the term “crisis man-
agement”. This deﬁnition gives rise to a partic-
ular yet broad-ranging way of academic work
that we try to summarize here in terms of ‘the
The crisis approach brings together ideas of
vulnerability, risk, threat, trigger, process,
response and outcome. It is agnostic to the source
of threat: it is applied to such disparate events as
9/11, the Asian tsunami, the swine ﬂu pandemic,
Hurricane Katrina, the Deep Water Horizon oil
spill, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown,
the ﬁnancial breakdown, and Brexit. While it
recognizes the importance of prevention and risk
management, it accepts the notion that crises can
always happen. It advocates the idea that prepa-
ration can make the difference between a small
incident and a full-blown disaster. It trains our
attention on the opportunity dimension of
adversity: what is a crisis to some may be an
opportunity to others. It accepts that crisis out-
comes are socially construed and will likely be
In this chapter, we lay out the various com-
ponents of the crisis approach. We build the
chapter around two sets of questions that seem
equally relevant to crisis and disaster researchers.
The ﬁrst set addresses the nature of crisis,
inquiring into the causes, characteristics, and
consequences of crises. The second set addresses
the effectiveness of crisis management. We offer
the outlines of a framework that may help assess
the performance of crisis managers in a more
subtle way than public inquiries and many aca-
demic studies often do. We start the chapter off
with a discussion of the crisis concept.
2.2 The Nature of Crisis
In ancient Greek, the term crisis refers to a crit-
ical point, a fork in the road of development, a
moment of decision. In medical parlor, a crisis
refers to the critical phase of a patient’sﬁght
against a deadly threat: will she live or die? In
contemporary usage, crisis still combines the
grave threat and the escape door: the situation
may look bad, but it is not hopeless. In fact, a
crisis may open up unforeseen “windows of
opportunity”(Kingdon, 1984). This fundamental
ambiguity stands in marked contrast to the doom
implied by the Greek word for disaster (literally:
bad alignment of stars).
We speak of a crisis when a group, organi-
zation or community experiences a “serious
threat to the basic structures or the fundamental
values and norms of a system, which under time
pressure and highly uncertain circumstances
necessitates making vital decisions (Rosenthal,
Charles, & ‘t Hart, 1989, p. 10). This deﬁnition
of crisis allows us to compare a wide variety of
adversity: natural disasters and environmental
threats, ﬁnancial meltdowns and terrorist attacks,
epidemics and exploding factories, infrastructural
breakdown and organizational decline. What all
these events have in common is that they create
impossible conditions for those who seek to
manage a response operation; they force ﬁrst
responders, public managers and political leaders
to make urgent decisions while essential infor-
mation about causes and consequences remains
unavailable, unreliable or incomplete. Here we
will consider in somewhat more detail the three
key components—threat, uncertainty, and
urgency—that make up this classic deﬁnition.
Crises occur when core values or
life-sustaining systems of a community come
under threat. Think of widely shared values such
as safety and security, welfare and health,
integrity and rule of law, which become shaky or
even meaningless as a result of (looming) vio-
lence, destruction, damage or other forms of
adversity. When critical infrastructures fail, the
normal functioning of modern society is
24 A. Boin et al.
threatened. That is why a natural disaster evokes
a deep sense of crisis: deeply embedded values of
safety and security for oneself and one’s loved
ones come under threat (Raphael, 1986, p. 26).
In the crisis approach, the threat agents are
less interesting than the resulting experience of
threat. This approach is not overly focused on
categorizing events in “natural”,“man-made”or
“terrorist”boxes. It is the perception of threat
that matters. A threat may cause widespread fear
(even when objectively there may be little to
worry about), which will force authorities to act.
Crises induce a sense of urgency. Threats that
do not pose immediate problems—think of cli-
mate change or future pension deﬁcits—do not
induce a widespread sense of crisis. Experts may
raise red ﬂags but most politicians (and most
people) do not lose sleep over problems with a
horizon that exceeds their political life expec-
tancy. Time compression is a critical element of
crisis: the threat is here, it is real and must be
dealt with now.
In a crisis, the perception of an urgent threat is
accompanied by a high degree of uncertainty.
This uncertainty pertains both to the nature and
the potential consequences of the threat: What is
happening and how did it happen? What’s next,
how bad will it be? More importantly, uncer-
tainty clouds the search for solutions: What can
we do? What happens if we select this option?
What will others do? How will people react?
This approach recognizes that a crisis is the
product of shared perception. People do not
always agree whether a threat exists, whether it is
urgent and what should be done to mend the
threat. This creates room for manipulation.
Politicians, stakeholders, media and citizens
actively try to create a sense of crisis to further
action that would be otherwise impossible; others
work just as hard to defuse any talk about crisis
to preserve the status quo. A crisis is political in
Two core questions have dominated the study
of crisis. The ﬁrst question pertains to the causes
of crisis. Why do systems become unstable?
Why do people perceive some situations as a
crisis whereas they ignore seemingly similar
situations? The second question pertains to crisis
management. How should we assess crisis man-
agement? What determines the effectiveness of
crisis management efforts? The crisis approach
comprises a variety of theoretical perspectives to
answer these questions. We will now brieﬂy
consider the interdisciplinary building blocks of
2.2.1 Theoretical Perspectives
The crisis approach borrows from all social sci-
ences. This rich and fruitful mix of perspectives
provides exactly what is needed to understand
the complexities and dynamics of crises and
crisis management. Let us review how crisis
researchers have cherry picked from the various
theoretical ﬁelds in the search for answers to the
research questions formulated above.
The crisis approach shares with the disaster
perspective a deep relation with sociology. In
sociological terms, a crisis marks the phase dur-
ing which order-inducing institutions stop to
function—the threat of anomy lurks in the
background (cf. ‘t Hart, 1993). It is the moment
—to cite Everett Hughes (1946)—when “the
cake of custom is broken.”Sociologists saw an
optimistic lining in the crisis cloud, noting that
during a crisis “the attention is aroused and
explores the situation with a view to recon-
structing modes of activity”(W.I. Thomas cited
in Hughes ). This idea of possible renewal
has sensitized crisis researchers to the ways in
which policymakers and politicians exploit crises
to bring about changes that would be impossible
in more stable times (Boin, ‘t Hart, Stern, &
A sociological subﬁeld of organization theory
produced one of the most powerful theories
informing our crisis perspective. In Normal
Accidents, Perrow (1999) applied two wholesale
sociological concepts (complexity and coupling)
to explain organizational breakdown (we will
elaborate on Perrow’s theory in the next section).
This and other similar work in organization the-
ory helped raise a fundamental debate about the
2 The Crisis Approach 25
feasibility and desirability of entrusting danger-
ous technology to large-scale bureaucracies
(Chiles, 2001; La Porte, Perrow, Rochlin, &
Sagan, 1994; Sagan, 1993).
Psychology has always been a source of
inspiration to crisis researchers. Through their
work, we have learned much about individual
decision-making under stress and uncertainty
(Coates, 2012; Holsti, 1979; Janis & Mann,
1977; Kahneman, 2011). Social-psychologists
have shown that group decisions do not neces-
sarily compensate for the shortcomings of the
stressed individual’s decision-making process
(Janis, 1982;‘t Hart, 1994;‘t Hart, Stern, &
In addition, psychologists have done impor-
tant work that helps us understand the relation
between human error, technology, organizational
culture and the development of crisis (Flin, 1996;
Klein, 2001; Reason, 1990). They explain why
and how people act on negligible risks (avoiding
ﬂying) while they ignore others (smoking; driv-
ing without seatbelts) (Gardner, 2008; Pidgeon,
Kasperson, & Slovic, 2003). This explains why
well-trained operators make crisis decisions in a
very particular way: they compare their situa-
tional assessment with mental slides of similar
situations (they select the decision that comes
with the slide that matches their assessment).
Their research helps us understand that crisis
decision-making differs quite dramatically from
the incremental, semi-rationalistic way often
prescribed in textbooks on management and
The political science ﬁeld of International
Relations (IR) has traditionally paid much
attention to international crises. Crisis scholars in
IR—a small minority in this huge ﬁeld of polit-
ical scientists—tend to analyze international
conﬂicts in terms of high-level decision-making
(Herek, Janis, & Huth, 1987; Hermann, 1972)as
well as dynamic interaction between parties
(Brecher, 1993). In explaining the escalation and
outcomes of international conﬂicts, they study
how pervasive perceptions, bureau-politics, and
small-group dynamics affect the critical decisions
made during a crisis (Allison, 1971; George,
1991; Jervis, 1976; Lebow, 1981). This ﬁrm
body of richly documented studies has taught us
much about political leadership behavior in times
In the more traditional study of political
development, a crisis refers to a necessary phase
of disorder in a nation’s march toward democ-
racy (see f.i. Almond, Flanagan, & Mundt, 1973;
Linz & Stepan, 1978; Zimmerman, 1983). The
sociological meaning of the term was thus pre-
served, as political scientists applied it to
describe a phase in which established institutions
had lost their inﬂuence. But the term was infused
with a normative meaning, which has made the
study of crisis slightly suspect in this ﬁeld ever
since. When political scientists refer to crisis, the
automatic question is: whose crisis are we talking
about? In more recent years, this question has led
to intriguing contributions that stress the sub-
jective nature of crisis and its outcomes.
Business scholars have produced a substantial
body of usually rather prescriptive work to pre-
pare managers and MBA-students to deal with
reputation damage, shifting markets, fraud, pro-
duct recalls and other adverse events that threaten
the proﬁtability of the ﬁrm (Mitroff & Pauchant,
1990; Pauchant & Mitroff, 1992). The rising
number of books and articles on the topic of
business continuity suggests the emergence of a
crisis ﬁeld in its own right. A similar niche has
grown on the topic of corporate reputation in
crisis (Coombs, 2007; Sellnow, Veil, &
The “Great Recession”, which
has held the U.S. and Europe its grip between
2006 and the time of writing, spurned an inter-
disciplinary effort to understand why this crisis
was so badly managed. In addition, the business
ﬁeld has produced many studies that help
understand the importance of regulatory envi-
ronments (or the lack thereof).
In yet another niche—tucked away in the ﬁeld
of communications studies—interesting work is
being done on the relation between crisis actors,
(political) stakeholders, media and civilians
(Fearn-Banks, 1996; Seeger, Selmer, & Ulmer,
The topic of organizational reputation has made headway
into the ﬁeld of political science and public administration
as well (Carpenter, 2010).
26 A. Boin et al.
2003). This body of research helps us understand
why sound decisions may or may not help to
manage a crisis, depending on the way they are
communicated. It helps us understand how media
frames shape reporting about crisis (Miller,
Roberts, & LaPoe, 2014), which, in turn, affect
general perceptions of the crisis and the author-
ities managing it (Cross & Ma, 2015).
Our tour d’horizon would not be complete
without mentioning the ﬁeld of disaster research.
The thorough understanding of collective
behavior, disaster myths and the pathologies of
top-down coordination in times of adversity have
proved particularly fruitful to understanding cri-
sis dynamics (see the other chapters of this book
for the lessons of disaster research). The recent
rediscovery of resilience provides a bridge
between issues of vulnerability, challenges of
response and controversial outcomes (Aldrich,
2016; Cutter, Ash, & Emrich, 2014).
These perspectives have helped us to better
understand the nature of crisis and the dynamics
of crisis management. In the next two sections,
we present the key insights generated in the crisis
ﬁeld with regard to key questions formulated
2.3 The Ubiquity of Crisis
Crises were once explained in terms of bad luck
or God’s punishment, but this view has become
obsolete (Bovens & ‘t Hart, 1996,2016; Quar-
antelli, 1998; Steinberg, 2000). It is now accep-
ted, at least by scholars, that crises are the result
of multiple causes, which interact over time to
produce a threat with devastating potential.
This may be somewhat counterintuitive, as it
deﬁes the traditional logic of “triggers”and
underlying causes. Linear thinking (“big events
must have big causes”) thus gives way to a more
subtle perspective that emphasizes the unin-
tended consequences of increased complexity
(Buchanan, 2000). The approach does not seek to
identify speciﬁc factors that “cause”a crisis. It
proposes that escalatory processes undermine a
social system’s capacity to cope with
disturbances. The agents of disturbance may
come from anywhere—ranging from earthquakes
to human errors—but the ultimate cause of the
crisis lies in the inability of a system to deal with
The causes of vulnerability often reside deep
within the system. They typically remain unno-
ticed, or key policy makers fail to attend to them
(Turner, 1978). In the process leading up to a
crisis, these seemingly innocent factors combine
and transform into disruptive forces that come to
represent an undeniable threat to the system.
These factors are sometimes referred to as
pathogens, as they are present long before the
crisis becomes manifest (Reason, 1990,2008).
The notion that crises are an unwanted
by-product of complex systems has been popu-
larized by Perrow’s(1999) analysis of the
nuclear power incident at Three Miles Island.
Perrow describes how a relatively minor glitch in
the plant was misunderstood in the control room.
The plant operators initially thought they under-
stood the problem and applied the required
technical response. But as they had actually
misinterpreted the warning signal, the response
worsened the problem. The increased threat
mystiﬁed the operators (they could not under-
stand why the problem persisted) and invited an
urgent response. By again applying the “right”
response to the wrong problem, the operators
continued to exacerbate the problem. Finally,
someone ﬁgured out the correct source of the
problem, just in time to stave off a disaster.
The very qualities of complex systems that
drive progress lie at the heart of most if not all
technological crises. As socio-technical systems
become more complex and increasingly con-
nected (tightly coupled) to other (sub)systems,
their vulnerability for disturbances increases
(Perrow, 1999; Turner, 1978). The more com-
plex a system becomes, the harder it is for any-
one to understand it in its entirety. Tight coupling
between a system’s component parts and with
those of other systems allows for the rapid pro-
liferation of interactions (and errors) throughout
2 The Crisis Approach 27
Complexity and lengthy chains of accident
causation do not remain conﬁned to the world of
high-risk technology. Consider the global ﬁnan-
cial crises that have rattled the world in recent
years (Posner, 2011). Globalization and ICT
tightly connect world markets and ﬁnancial sys-
tems. As a result, a minor problem in a seemingly
isolated market can trigger a ﬁnancial meltdown
in markets on the other side of the globe.
Structural vulnerabilities in relatively weak
economies such as Russia, Argentina or Turkey
may suddenly “explode”on Wall Street and
cause worldwide economic decline. Economic
problems in Greece, Spain and Portugal brought
the European Union’s common market on the
verge of breakdown.
The same characteristics can be found in cri-
ses that beset low-tech environments such as
prisons or sports stadiums. Urban riots, prison
disturbances and sports crowd disasters always
seem to start off with relatively minor incidents
(Waddington (2007) refers to ﬂashpoints). Upon
closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that
it is a similar mix of interrelated causes that
produces major outbursts of this kind.
In the case of prison disturbances, the inter-
action between guards and inmates is of partic-
ular relevance (Boin & Rattray, 2004). Consider
the 1990 riot that all but destroyed the Strange-
ways prison in Manchester (UK). In the incuba-
tion period leading up to the riot, prison guards
had to adapt their way of working in the face of
budgetary pressure. Inmates did not understand
or appreciate this change in staff behavior and
subsequently began to challenge staff authority,
which, in turn, generated anxiety and stress
among staff. As staff began to act in an increas-
ingly defensive and inconsistent manner, pris-
oners became even more frustrated with staff
behavior. A reiterative, self-reinforcing pattern of
changing behavior and staff-prisoner conﬂict set
the stage for a riot. A small incident started the
riot, which, in turn, touched off a string of dis-
turbances in other prisons. Many civil distur-
bances between protestors and police seem to
unfold according to the same pattern (Goldstone
& Useem, 1999; Smelser, 1962; Waddington,
All this makes a crisis hard to detect. It is hard
to understand the manifold activities and pro-
cesses that take place in these systems.
vulnerabilities go unrecognized and ineffective
attempts to deal with seemingly minor distur-
bances continue. The system thus “fuels”the
lurking crisis. Only a minor “trigger”is needed to
initiate a destructive cycle of escalation, which
may then rapidly spread throughout the system.
Crises may have their roots far away (in a geo-
graphical sense) but rapidly snowball through the
global networks, jumping from one system to
another, gathering destructive potential along the
Modern vectors such as globalization,
just-in-time delivery chains, increasing volumes
of travel and transportation have enhanced the
speed and potential scope of crisis escalation.
The tight connections between policy systems,
business multinationals and internationally ori-
ented communities give rise to crises that are
increasingly transboundary (Ansell, Boin, &
Keller, 2010). Think of the 2010 volcanic ash
crisis that virtually paralyzed European air
transport networks for almost two weeks (Kui-
pers & Boin, 2015). The eruption and ash cloud
production of the Icelandic Eyjafjallajökull vol-
cano triggered a crisis that rippled across the
European continent, causing a mobility crisis for
the European economy.
Have modern systems become more vulnera-
ble to breakdown? One might argue that modern
society is better than ever equipped to deal with
routine failures: great hospitals, computers and
telephones, ﬁre trucks and universities, regula-
tion and funds –these factors have helped to
minimize the scope and number of crises that
were once routine (Wildavsky, 1988). Others
argue that the resilience of modern society has
deteriorated: when a threat does materialize (say
an electrical power outage), modern systems
The laws of complex systems are still largely unknown.
And the more we learn about the behavior of complex
systems, the less we seem to understand. Complexity
theorists are busy uncovering the hidden patterns that they
say underlie this process, but practical insights (for our
purposes at least) have yet to emerge. For an introduction
see Buchanan (2000).
28 A. Boin et al.
suffer most. Students of natural disasters make a
similar point: modern society increases its vul-
nerability to disaster by building in places where
history warns not to build (Tierney, 2014). The
costs of natural and man-made disasters continue
to grow, while scenarios of future crises promise
This approach to crisis holds an important
lesson for practitioners: before anything can be
done to prevent a crisis from materializing, an
emerging threat must be explicitly recognized.
There are at least three reasons why many
potential crises fail to gain such recognition.
First, threats to shared values or
life-sustaining functions cannot always be rec-
ognized before their disastrous consequences
materialize. As the crisis process begins to
unfold, policy makers often do not see anything
out of the ordinary. Everything is still in place,
even though hidden interactions eat away at the
pillars of the system. It is only when the crisis is
in full swing and becomes manifest that policy
makers can recognize it for what it is.
The second reason is found in the contested
nature of crisis. A crisis rarely, if ever, “speaks
for itself.”The deﬁnition of a situation is, as
argued above, the outcome of a subjective pro-
cess. More often than not people will differ in
their perception and appreciation of a threat. In
fact, we might say that crisis deﬁnitions are
continuously subjected to the forces of politi-
cization (Edelman, 1977). One man’s crisis is
another man’s opportunity.
The third reason has to do with the closed
nature of policy agendas. Even if consensus
would exist that a serious threat is emerging, the
status of this new problem is far from assured.
Governments deal with urgent problems every-
day; attention for one problem takes away
attention from another. For a threat to be recog-
nized as a crisis, it must gain sufﬁcient societal
and political attention to earn a place on over-
crowded policy agendas (Birkland, 1997; Bovens
&‘t Hart, 1996).
2.4 Crisis Management: Crucial
Challenges for Leadership
We deﬁne crisis management as the set of efforts
aimed at minimizing the impact of an urgent
threat. This response typically involves multiple
actors. Some of these actors may operate at the
strategic (policy-making) level, others more at
the operational level (think of police ofﬁcers,
ﬁremen, ambulance drivers, technicians etc.).
These worlds are quite distinct in the types of
responsibilities actors have and the activities they
engage in (Boin & Renaud, 2013).
Crisis management will differ based on the
“knowability”of the situation. Some crises are
unique events, leaving both strategic crisis
managers and operational ﬁrst responders with
few preconceived ideas as to how to handle the
situation. Other crises may offer a variation on a
theme: think of hurricanes and ﬂoods, or certain
infrastructural failures, which may follow famil-
iar patterns even if they differ in important
details. For these latter events, speciﬁc plans and
scenarios may be developed. For events that
occur regularly and often, a quantitative basis
may exist to allow for risk assessments (calcu-
lating what the chances are that a certain event
will occur). As uncertainty rises, crisis managers
will ﬁnd risk assessments and disaster plans less
Crisis management is not an easy job. Psy-
chological constraints operate at the individual,
group and organizational level. The stress of
crisis can impair information management and
decision-making in severe ways. A combination
of political and media pressure typically makes
the jobs of crisis managers harder. Citizens
whose lives are affected by critical contingencies
expect governments and public agencies to do
their utmost to keep them out of harm’s way.
They expect the ofﬁcials in charge to make crit-
ical decisions and provide direction even in the
most difﬁcult circumstances. So do the journal-
ists that produce the stories that help to shape the
Recent scenarios feature radical weather changes, bio-
logical terrorism, and asteroid collisions (Bryson, 2003;
OECD, 2003,2011; Schwartz & Randall, 2003).
How and when policymakers recognize (or not) threats is
object of research in the policy studies community
(Birkland, 1997; Kingdon, 1984).
2 The Crisis Approach 29
crisis in the minds of the public. And so do
members of parliament, public interest groups,
institutional watchdogs and other voices on the
political stage that monitor and inﬂuence the
behavior of leaders. However misplaced, unfair
or illusory these expectations may be, it hardly
matters. These expectations are real in their
political consequences (Thomas & Thomas,
Crisis management has become more chal-
lenging because the democratic context has
changed over the past decades. Analysts agree,
for instance, that citizens and politicians alike
have become at once more fearful and less tol-
erant of major hazards to public health, safety
and prosperity. The modern Western citizen has
little patience for imperfections; he has come to
fear glitches and has learned to see more of what
he fears. In this culture of fear—sometimes
referred to as the “risk society”—the role of the
modern mass media is crucial (Beck, 1992).
In contemporary Western society, a crisis sets
in motion extensive follow-up reporting, inves-
tigations by political forums as well as civil and
criminal juridical proceedings. It is not uncom-
mon for public ofﬁcials and agencies to be sin-
gled out as the responsible actors for prevention,
preparedness and response failures. Public lead-
ers must defend themselves against seemingly
incontrovertible evidence of their incompetence,
ignorance or insensitivity. Crisis management
therefore should be viewed a deeply controver-
sial and intensely political activity (Edelman,
1977; Habermas, 1975;‘t Hart, 1993).
Given these constraints and the nature of the
crisis management challenge, one might ask what
we can reasonably expect from crisis leaders
operating at the strategic level? Research sug-
gests that effective and legitimate crisis man-
agement is enhanced by the performance of
several managerial functions: early recognition,
sense making,decision making and coordina-
tion,meaning making,accounting and learning
(Boin et al., 2016). Let us now
brieﬂy review these functions in somewhat more
2.4.1 Early Detection
A crisis seems to pose a straightforward chal-
lenge: once a crisis becomes manifest, crisis
managers must take measures to deal with its
consequences. Reality is much more complex,
however. Most crises do not materialize with a
big bang; they are the product of escalation.
Policymakers must not only recognize from
vague, ambivalent, and contradictory signals
that some threat is emerging. This means that
they have to deﬁne the evolving situation and
arrive at a collective understanding of its poten-
tial scope and effects. Effective crisis manage-
ment begins with a shared recognition that a
threat has emerged which requires immediate
Inquiry reports often give the impression that
most crises could have been foreseen. In hind-
sight, when we all know what happened and
why, criticasters wonder how those in charge
could have missed so many red ﬂags (Tetlock,
2005; Turner, 1978; Woods, 2005). However,
during the emergence of a crisis, the bits of
fragmented information that later turn out to be
signals cannot be easily distinguished from other
In the literature, we identify two conditions
for “foresight”(cf. Turner, 1978). The ﬁrst con-
dition pertains to extensive experience among
ﬁrst responders and system operators with inci-
dents and their dynamics. Apparently, experi-
enced ﬁre ﬁghters can develop a keen sense of
impending danger (Klein, 2001). Likewise,
operators develop an ability to recognize devia-
tions in complex but known processes. Roe and
Schulman (2008) show how vulnerabilities in
organizational design and high risk infrastruc-
tures design are compensated by the people who
manage for high reliability, even during peak
demand times or periods of stress. The second is
organizational. Organizations should stimulate
rapid detection of impending threats (Weick &
Sutcliffe, 2002). They should put a premium on
continuous vigilance and on a collective will-
ingness to act on faint signals, tolerate false
30 A. Boin et al.
alarms and encourage voluntary admissions of
failures and near-misses.
2.4.2 Sense Making
However penetrating the events that trigger a
crisis - jet planes hitting skyscrapers, thousands
of people found dead in mass graves –a uniform
picture of the events rarely emerges: do they
constitute a tragedy, an outrage, perhaps a pun-
ishment, or, inconceivably, a blessing in dis-
guise? Crisis managers will have to determine
how threatening the events are, to what or whom,
what their operational and strategic parameters
are, and how the situation will develop in the
period to come. Signals come from all kinds of
sources: some loud, some soft, some accurate,
some widely off the mark. But how to tell which
is which? How to distill cogent signals from the
noise of crisis?
Rational information processing is very hard
under conditions of deep uncertainty (Coates,
2012; Kahneman, 2011; Reason, 2008). The
bewildering pace, ambiguity and complexity of
crisis can easily overwhelm normal modes of sit-
uation assessment. Stress may further impair
sense-making abilities. The organizations in
which crisis managers typically function tend to
produce additional barriers to collective agree-
ment on a common operational picture of the
Effective sense-making is hard without an
established and practiced routine that allows
strategic crisis managers to process information,
circulate it among the relevant people and con-
sider their feedback, create a common opera-
tional picture, analyze mid- and long term
consequences, and articulate and adequately
address speciﬁc information needs. Even orga-
nizations (think of NASA or the worldwide
network of national and international centers of
disease control) with an extensive sense-making
machinery in place, struggle to arrive at a shared
picture of the situation in time.
An important new trend is the ability of ﬁrst
responders, humanitarian relief organizations and
affected citizens –who happen to be present at
ground zero —to provide information and
engage directly in sense making by means of
social media. Innovative tools, such as UNO-
CHA’s humanitarian aid app, and emerging the-
oretical approaches focus on employing a
“knowledge commons”to support crisis leaders
in extreme events (Comfort & Okada, 2013).
Using social media tools and applications, citi-
zens play an increasingly central role in disaster
response (Sabou and Klein, 2016; Vieweg,
Palen, Liu, Hughes, & Sutton, 2008; Yates &
Paquette, 2011). This emerging involvement of
ad hoc citizen networks employing new media
brings a new set of actors and perspectives to the
sense making table, for better and for worse.
They can provide crucial information but also
add to the stream of unveriﬁed rumors and
thereby critically skew the collective assessment
of what is going on. The leadership challenge is
to beneﬁt from the possibilities these upcoming
information sources and networks without falling
prey to its potential downsides.
2.4.3 Making Critical Decisions
Responding to crises often confronts governments
and public agencies with pressing choice oppor-
tunities. These can be of many kinds. The needs
and problems triggered by the onset of crisis may
be so big that the scarce resources available will
have to be prioritized. This is much like politics as
usual except that in crisis circumstances the dis-
parities between demand and supply of public
resources are much bigger, the situation remains
unclear and volatile, and the time to think, consult
and gain acceptance for decisions is highly
restricted. Crises also confront governments and
leaders with issues they do not face on a daily
basis, for example concerning the deployment of
the military, the use of lethal force, or the radical
restriction of civil liberties.
The classic example of crisis decision-making
is the Cuban Missile Crisis (1963), during which
U.S. President John F. Kennedy was presented
with pictures of Soviet missile installations under
construction in Cuba. The photos conveyed a
geostrategic reality in the making that Kennedy
2 The Crisis Approach 31
considered unacceptable, and it was up to him to
decide what to do about it. Whatever his choice
from the options presented to him by his advisers –
an air strike, an invasion of Cuba, a naval blockade
–and however hard it was to predict the exact
consequences, one thing seemed certain: the ﬁnal
decision would have a momentous impact on
Soviet-American relations and possibly on world
peace. Crisis decision-making is making hard
calls, which involve tough value trade-offs and
major political risks (Brecher, 1993; Janis, 1989).
Many pivotal crisis decisions are not taken by
individual leaders or by small informal groups of
senior policy makers. They emerge from various
alternative loci of decision making and coordi-
nation (McConnell, 2003;‘t Hart, Rosenthal, &
Kouzmin, 1993). In fact, the crisis response in
modern society is best characterized in terms of a
network. This is not necessarily counterproduc-
tive, many leaders have learned, as delegation of
decision-making authority down the line usually
enhances resilience rather than detracting from it.
2.4.4 Crisis Coordination
Crises typically require intense cooperation in a
network of organizations that may well be new to
each other (Boin & ‘t Hart, 2012; Boin &
Bynander, 2015). Vertical and horizontal coop-
eration must be orchestrated to accomplish a state
of coordinated behavior. Because a situation can
be urgent and threatening but the network of
partners is often not hierarchically related,
orchestrating a response requires striking a
careful balance between persuasion and “com-
mand and control.”Persuasion does usually not
sufﬁce to reach a state of optimal cooperation.
Top down command can easily back-ﬁre.
After all, each decision must be implemented
by a set of organizations; only when these
organizations work together is there a chance that
effective implementation will happen. Getting
public bureaucracies to adapt to crisis circum-
stances is a daunting –some say impossible –
task in itself. Most public organizations were
originally designed to conduct routine business
in accordance with such values as fairness, law-
fulness and efﬁciency. The management of crisis,
however, requires ﬂexibility, improvisation,
redundancy, and the breaking of rules.
Coordination is not a self-evident feature of
crisis management operations. The question of
who is in charge typically arouses great passions.
In disaster studies, the “battle of the Samaritans”
is a well-documented phenomenon: agencies
representing different technologies of crisis cop-
ing ﬁnd it difﬁcult to align their actions. More-
over, a crisis does not make the public suddenly
“forget”the sensitivities and conﬂicts that gov-
erned the daily relations between authorities and
others before the crisis. Trust and social capital
therefore receive increasing attention in the dis-
aster literature on effective response and recovery
operations (Aldrich, 2012).
Disaster researchers see self-organization as a
central feature of coordination. Disaster-stricken
communities, local organizations and individual
victims can be surprisingly creative and adaptive.
Their ad hoc nodes of cooperation may even be
best suited to local needs (Aldrich, 2012;
Carr, 1932; Comfort & Okada, 2013; Drabek,
1985). The effectiveness of self-organization
instructs central authorities to hold back (Boin
& Bynander, 2015). Such situations are best
served by “enabling leadership”(Nooteboom &
Termeer, 2015). Effective leaders are “asking
more than telling, requesting rather than
ordering, delegating and decentralizing rather
than narrowing and centralizing”(Quarantelli,
1988:382). If, however, network parties clash
or local capacity is completely over-
whelmed, central ofﬁcials should take charge and
2.4.5 Meaning Making
In a crisis, leaders are expected to reduce
uncertainty and provide an authoritative account
32 A. Boin et al.
of what is going on, why it is happening and
what needs to be done. When they have made
sense of the events and have arrived at some sort
of situational appraisal and made strategic policy
choices, leaders must get others to accept their
deﬁnition of the situation. They must impute
“meaning”to the unfolding crisis in such a way
that their efforts to manage it are enhanced. If
they don’t, or if they do not succeed at it, their
decisions will not be understood nor respected. If
other actors in the crisis succeed in dominating
the meaning-making process, the ability of
incumbent leaders to decide and maneuver is
Two problems often recur. First, public lead-
ers are not the only ones trying to frame the
crisis. Their messages coincide and compete with
those of other parties, who hold other positions
and interests, who are likely to espouse various
alternative deﬁnitions of the situation and advo-
cate different courses of action. Censoring them
is hardly a viable option in a democracy.
Second, authorities often cannot provide cor-
rect information right away. They struggle with
the mountains of raw data (reports, rumors, pic-
tures) that are quickly amassed when something
extraordinary happens. Turning them into a
coherent picture of the situation is a major
challenge by itself. Getting it out to the public in
the form of accurate, clear and actionable infor-
mation requires a major public relations effort.
This effort is often hindered by the aroused state
of the audience: people whose lives are deeply
affected tend to be anxious if not stressed.
Moreover, they do not necessarily see the gov-
ernment as their ally. And pre-existing distrust of
government does not evaporate in times of crisis.
2.4.6 Accounting for Performance
In a democratic polity, crisis leaders will have to
render account for what has happened and what
government organizations have done in response.
If they gain acceptance for their account, legiti-
macy of public government is effectively pre-
served (Boin, McConnell, & ‘t Hart, 2008).
The burden of proof in accountability dis-
cussions lies with leaders: they must establish
beyond doubt that they cannot be held respon-
sible for the occurrence or escalation of a crisis.
These accountability debates can easily degen-
erate into “blame games”with a focus on iden-
tifying and punishing “culprits”rather than
discursive reﬂection about the full range of cau-
ses and consequences.
The challenge for leaders
is to cope with the politics of crisis accountability
without resorting to undigniﬁed and potentially
self-defeating defensive tactics of blame avoid-
ance that only serve to prolong the crisis by
transforming it into a political confrontation at
Crisis leaders can be competent and consci-
entious, but that alone says little about how their
performance will be evaluated when the crisis is
over. Policymakers and agencies that failed to
perform their duties prior to or during the critical
stages need not despair, however: if they “man-
age”the political game of the crisis aftermath
well, they may prevent losses to their reputation,
autonomy, and resources. Crises have winners
and losers. The political (and legal) dynamics of
the accountability process determines which cri-
sis actors end up where (Brändström & Kuipers,
2003; Hood, 2010; Resodihardjo, Carroll, Van
Eijk, & Maris, 2016).
2.4.7 Learning Lessons
A crisis offers a reservoir of potential lessons for
contingency planning and training for future
crises. One would expect all those involved to
study these lessons and feed them back into
organizational practices, policies and laws.
Lesson-drawing is one of the most underde-
veloped aspects of crisis management (Broe-
kema, 2016; Lagadec, 1997; Stern, 1997). In
addition to cognitive and institutional barriers to
learning, lesson-drawing is constrained by the
Although much more pronounced today, the tendency to
search for culprits following the occurrence of disaster
and crisis is age old, see Drabek and Quarantelli (1967)as
well as Douglas (1992).
2 The Crisis Approach 33
role of these lessons in determining the impact
that crises have on a society. Crises become part
of collective memory, a source of historical
analogies for future leaders (Khong, 1992; Stur-
ken, 1997). The political depiction of crisis as a
product of prevention and foresight failures
would force people to rethink the assumptions on
which preexisting policies and rule systems res-
ted. Other stakeholders in the game of
crisis-induced lesson-drawing might seize upon
the lessons to advocate measures and policy
reforms that incumbent leaders reject. Leaders
thus have a big stake in steering the
lesson-drawing process in the political and
bureaucratic arenas. The crucial challenge here is
to achieve a dominant inﬂuence on the feedback
stream that crises generate into preexisting policy
networks and public organizations.
The documentation of these inhibiting com-
plexities has done nothing to dispel the
near-utopian belief in crisis opportunities that is
found not only in academic literature, but also in
popular wisdom (Boin & ‘t Hart, 2003). A crisis
is seen as a good time to clean up and start anew.
Crises then represent discontinuities that must be
seized upon –a true test of leadership, the
experts claim. So most people are not surprised
to see sweeping reforms in the wake of crisis:
that will never happen again! They intuitively
distrust leaders who claim bad luck and point out
that their organizations and policy have a great
Crises tend to cast long shadows upon the
political systems in which they occur. It is only
when we study these longer term processes that
we are able to assess the full impact of crises.
Unfortunately, such studies are rare (but see
Birkland, 1997; Kurtz & Browne, 2004). Most
studies of the “crisis aftermath”of emergencies
have been about community reconstruction,
individual and collective trauma, and legal bat-
tles. We need to complement these studies by
taking a broader macro-social perspective that
looks at collective “learning”for an entire nation,
polity or society in the aftermath of crisis
(Broekema, 2016). It remains an open question if
crises tend to serve as triggers of systemic change
or if they serve to forestall such change, and to
what extent these processes can be channeled by
good crisis governance.
2.5 Conclusion: The Crisis Approach
The crisis approach outlined in this chapter pro-
vides a framework for understanding the
dynamic evolution of crisis and the prospects for
public management of urgent threats. The
approach adopts a long time line, which makes it
possible to trace a crisis from its early roots to its
burial in public memory. It admonishes the
research community to complement operational
perspectives with political perspectives. Most
importantly, perhaps, is its capacity to tease out
the interplay between crisis dynamics and crisis
Two lessons seem of particular relevance to
practitioners. First, one should accept that even
the richest and most competent government
imaginable can never guarantee that major dis-
ruptions will not occur. Policy makers cannot
escape the dilemmas of crisis response by
banking on crisis prevention. Crisis prevention is
a necessary and indeed vitally important strategy,
but it pertains only to known emergencies –those
that happened before. This requires a strategy of
resilience (Wildavsky, 1988). This lesson res-
onates with key insights in the disaster ﬁeld.
The second lesson reminds us that crisis is a
label, a semantic construction people use to
characterize situations or epochs that they
somehow regard as extraordinary, volatile and
potentially far-reaching in their negative impli-
cations. The intensity or scope of a crisis is thus
not solely determined by the nature of the threat,
the level of uncertainty, or the time available to
decision-makers. A crisis is to a considerable
extent what people –inﬂuenced by the inevitable
mass media onslaught following an unscheduled
event –make of it.
Why people collectively label and experience
a situation as a crisis remains somewhat of a
mystery. Physical facts, numbers and other
seemingly objective indicators are important
factors, but they are not decisive. A ﬂood that
34 A. Boin et al.
kills 200 people is a more or less routine emer-
gency in Bangladesh, but it would be experi-
enced as a major crisis in, let’s say, Miami or
Paris. Crises are in the eye of the beholder. It is
people’s frames of reference, experience and
memory, values and interests that determine their
perceptions of crisis. A sense of “collective
stress”results not just from some objective
threat, but also from the intricate interaction
between events, individual perceptions, media
representations, political reactions, and govern-
ment efforts at “meaning making.”
This process of collective understanding is
one of escalation and de-escalation. It is subject
to the inﬂuence of actors who have a stake in
playing up a crisis mood, or playing it down.
And this is exactly what happens when unex-
pected incidents or major disruptions are pre-
dicted or actually occur: different political,
bureaucratic, societal and international stake-
holders will not only form their own picture of
the situation and classify it in terms of threats and
opportunities, but many of them will actively
seek to inﬂuence the public perception of the
situation. Once a particular deﬁnition of the sit-
uation has taken hold in mass media and political
discourse, it becomes a political reality that pol-
icymakers have to take into account and act
upon. Initial deﬁnitions tend to be persistent.
An effective crisis response will inevitably
require a two-pronged strategy: dealing with the
events “on the ground”(whether literally as in
civil emergencies or, metaphorically, as in a
currency or stock market crisis); and dealing with
the political upheaval and instability triggered by
these events. Neglecting one or the other is
detrimental to any attempt to exercise public
leadership in a crisis.
These lessons help us to ﬂag three challenges
for further research. First, much work remains to
be done on the understanding of crisis dynamics. If
crises cannot be prevented, we must learn to rec-
ognize them in time. Early warning can only work
if it builds on a solid theory of crisis development.
Second, researchers need to invest in a better
understanding of resilience (Duit, 2016). Crisis
researchers tend to agree (with disaster researchers
we should note) that resilience may be one of the
key strategies to deal with system breakdowns.
Much more systematic work needs to be done on
the identiﬁcation of mechanisms that provide for
resilient societies (Comfort, Boin, & Demchak,
2010). Third, research could beneﬁt our under-
standing of the tenuous relation between crisis and
change: which type of crises and disasters open a
window for structural change (and what must be
done to exploit that opportunity)?
These research challenges would beneﬁt from
a close working relation between crisis and dis-
aster scholars. Both communities have rich
research traditions with regard to these questions.
Both communities draw from each other’s
empirical and theoretical ﬁndings, but interdis-
ciplinary research –bringing both communities
together in joint research –has been quite rare.
Crisis scholars are deeply indebted to the work of
disaster colleagues such as Joe Scanlon, Russell
Dynes, Henry Quarantelli and Kathleen Tierney.
Disaster researchers, in turn, increasingly make
use of current work done by crisis researchers.
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