Background In 2008, five UKCRC Public Health Research Centres of Excellence were created to develop a coordinated approach to policy and practice engagement and knowledge exchange. The five Centres have developed their own models and practices for achieving these aims, which have not been compared in detail to date. Methods We applied an extended version of Saner's model for the interface between science and policy to compare five case studies of knowledge exchanges, one from each centre. We compared these practices on three dimensions within our model (focus, function and type/ scale) to identify barriers and facilitators for knowledge exchange. Results The case studies shared commonalities in their range of activities (type) but illustrated different ways of linking these activities (function). The Centres' approaches ranged from structural to more organic, and varied in the extent that they engaged internal audiences (focus). Each centre addressed policymakers at different geographical levels and scale. Conclusions This article emphasizes the importance of linking a range of activities that engage policymakers at different levels, intensities and points in their decision-making processes to build relationships. Developing a structural approach to knowledge exchange activities in different contexts presents challenges of resource, implementation and evaluation.