The co-evolution of government risk communication practice and context for environmental health emergencies

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Environmental health emergencies, such as smoke events from bushfires and chemical fires, present a significant threat to human health. Risk communication is a key aspect of the public health response. However, recurring public criticism of government communication during these emergencies indicates that communication practice is not yet adequate. Improving communication requires a deeper understanding of risk communication practice. Despite extensive risk communication research, knowledge of government practice of risk communication is limited. This article focuses on an aspect of practice that deserves greater attention: the interconnectedness of practice with context (including social, political, institutional and event-specific contexts). Qualitative interviews gathered insights into practice from the practitioners tasked with communicating during smoke events, and thematic analysis drew on our conceptualisation of the relationship between context and practice for government risk communication. Our analysis shows that government risk communication practice and context co-evolve over time: crisis incidents emerge from inadequate practice during complex and unique smoke event; shifting social and political contexts increase expectations of practice; and adaptive institutional contexts change practice. Communication practice is observed to improve as a result of this co-evolution. The relationship between context and practice is commonly viewed as one-way (i.e. context influencing practice). However, this view underplays the influence of practice on context. Our analysis identifies the active role of practice in influencing the context in which future practice occurs. Suggestions for practice and academic research are made.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Risk Research
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2023


  • communication practice
  • context
  • emergency communication
  • environmental health
  • government
  • Risk communication

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