Two former New Labour PR gurus have been appointed directors of communications in strategic health authorities.

Lee Whitehead, currently a director at PR agency Fishburn Hedges, becomes communications lead for NHS East of England while Karl Milner, a partner at Finsbury Group, goes to NHS Yorkshire and the Humber.

Mr Whitehead said: 'I have worked for lots of public sector clients and find the public sector and particularly the NHS very challenging. It's one of those jobs where you feel you are really making a contribution.'

He denied being a Labour Party activist, saying he had last worked for the party in 1995 in the run-up to the 1997 general election.

In 1994, as a student activist, he helped Harriet Harman, then an opposition MP in the shadow Treasury team, in a campaign on fuel VAT. He also worked for the Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union.

He said: 'I have supported the Labour Party all my life but have not been active for many years.' He is still a party member.

However, the blurb on his website says: 'He is a particular aficionado of New Labour, having worked for the party and a trades union before Fishburn Hedges.'

Karl Milner has been at the multinational Finsbury Group since 2000, specialising in media, education and energy.

He worked for Gordon Brown from 1993-97 and before that as a Labour Party organiser for a number of MPs. He boasted to The Observer in 1998 that he had access to embargoed parliamentary reports.

In 2005 he stood unsuccessfully as a Labour candidate in county council elections in North Yorkshire, where he lives with his family.

Finsbury Group was until 2001 owned by Roland Rudd, a close associate of Peter Mandelson.

Mr Milner, who joins the SHA on 1 February, told HSJhe took the job for two reasons: 'First this job is far more challenging than anything I have done before, and second this is where I am from and where I live.'

Mr Milner said he was invited to apply for the job.

The two appointments were the first in a wave across England's 10 SHAs. South East Coast SHA last week announced the appointment of Stephanie Hood, who has worked for the NHS for 12 years, currently at the Department of Health. She led communications on the NHS plan.

Only South West SHA already has a substantive director of communications, Andrew Millward, whose last post was as director of communications and public involvement at Avon, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire SHA.

At West Midlands SHA, director of communications Jo Lenaghan was seconded as policy adviser to NHS chief executive David Nicholson in November 2006. The SHA has appointed an acting director and not yet decided how to proceed, said a spokesperson.

All other SHAs currently have interim communications directors or a vacancy. Five have now advertised the board-level post, with appointments expected between now and Easter.