Tom Savage: Former RTÉ authority chairman and communications expert

Obituary: ‘Don’t just stand there, do nothing’ was a constant refrain of his when it came to crisis management

 

Tom Savage, who has died recently, was a prominent communications expert who served as chairman of the RTÉ Authority and previously as an adviser to Albert Reynolds when he was taoiseach. Earlier he had been a rising star in the Catholic priesthood, and fellow seminarians later said of him, “He was the best bishop that Ireland never had.”

He and his wife, Terry Prone, ran high-profile public relations agency Carr Communications in Dublin until 2008, when they left to set up rival company the Communications Clinic.

While Prone appeared to relish being in the public spotlight, her husband preferred to work in the background. Behind the scenes, his crisis management skills were much in demand. “Don’t just stand there, do nothing” was a constant refrain of his. This was not nonsense. He was warning clients that if you don’t know what to do in a crisis, stop and make a plan, do not just act for the sake of taking action. You’ll only make things worse. Many organisations hired his services to develop strategy, mentor new or struggling managers and sometimes to resolve internal clashes.

Supportive

Normally a quiet man, his tolerance could wane when it came to people who spoke at length without saying much. At staff meetings, colleagues knew to watch for Savage, first of all putting his head in his hands; then, if the nonsense continued, allowing his head to go forward until his forehead rested on the table, and he appeared to be asleep. However, he was always quick to acknowledge good work by others and was tactfully supportive of those in difficulties.

As chairman of the RTÉ Authority he was in situ for the worst crisis to hit the national broadcaster in a generation. Up to then he clearly enjoyed being back on the RTÉ campus, meeting former colleagues, and chatting to familiar faces in the canteen. However in 2012, a TV documentary investigation into the behaviour of Irish missionaries in Africa libelled Fr Kevin Reynolds.

Soon after the Mission to Prey programme was broadcast, Savage spoke to a newspaper reporter in terms that were seen as having prejudged the outcome of processes then under way to determine what had happened. Then the Oireachtas committee on communications summoned him to discuss allegations that his company, specifically his co-director Terry Prone, had given media interview training to members of the Irish Missionary Union to deal with the outcome of the programme in advance of the broadcast. Savage said he had not known of this, no conflict of interest arose, and he resisted calls to resign as chairman of the RTÉ authority.

Little is publicly known about Savage’s earlier stint as communications adviser to taoiseach Albert Reynolds when the groundwork for the Belfast Agreement was being laid. Savage, from the Border county of Louth, and having worked in Northern Ireland, knew people “in the shadows”, so to speak, as the two governments prepared to bring Sinn Féin and the unionist paramilitaries together in a historic step. What input Savage had in that will probably not be known until the State papers for those years are opened. But he is known to have acted as a confidential link with paramilitaries.

Scholarship

He was the second of the six children of Peter Savage and Margaret, who was known as Mags, Murphy. The family lived at the Bush, Cooley, Co Louth. His father was a mason/joiner, his mother worked in an agri-supplies shop. He attended Monksland national school in Carlingford and won a scholarship to St Patrick’s secondary school in Armagh.

At university in Maynooth he studied divinity and arts, and played Gaelic football, soccer and tennis. Later at Queen’s University Belfast, his team won the Sigerson Cup. As a young priest he was sent to greet British troops on their first deployments on the streets of Belfast, when the nationalist community welcomed them as peacekeepers. He was seconded by the diocese of Armagh to the Catholic Communications Institute run by Bunny Carr in 1972, and presented religious programmes on RTÉ and UTV.

It was a time of ferment in the Catholic church. The hopes of renewal raised by the second Vatican Council were being dashed, and many in holy orders decided to leave. Savage was laicised in 1975.

Frisson

When Bunny Carr set up Carr Communications, he hired Savage and Prone (whose marriage to one another had caused a frisson in conservative quarters). She, a former actress, had become a skilled media performer. Over time, the couple became the dominant force in a cutting-edge public relations business, one that appeared to have a direct line to those in power, but which maintained strong links with religious institutions. Their son, Anton, became a broadcaster and manages the family business.

Tom Savage continued to work for RTÉ for some years including presenting the “It Says in the Papers” slot on morning radio, presenting religious programmes and editing trade magazines.

A lifelong teetotaller, he was active in the Pioneer Total Abstinence organisation, served on the board of Alcoholics Anonymous and worked as an alcoholism counsellor. In recent years, Savage’s day job and his lifelong passion for sport were neatly fused when young golfer Rory McIlroy sought the services of the Communications Clinic.

Savage is survived by his wife, Terry Prone, and their son, Anton, and granddaughter Anna; as well as his brothers Peter, Seamus and John and sisters Teresa and Margaret.