July 19, 2014
Originally published in The Sunday Business Post
Lives: Portrane, Co Dublin
Family: Tom Savage (husband), Anton Savage (son)
Favourite book: Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Favourite film: A Man For All Seasons
Hobbies: "making briquettes from wet newspapers"
The building where Terry Prone now works is a deconsecrated synagogue on Adelaide Road in Dublin city, by the canal. It is a Wednesday, and we are meeting there for lunch.
The Communications Clinic is part PR firm, part-media training ground, part-professional coaching service, whatever your profession may be. Prone is its chairwoman. She leads me downstairs to a room that is not her office.
The room’s carpet is royal blue; the walls are whitest white. Its main fixture is a board table, shining under 11 lights. My attention upon entering, however, is monopolised by a leatherette placemat at the head of the table, one teacup on a saucer, a small dish stacked with butter. One bottle of still water, one of sparkling. Just one glass. Just one single set of cutlery.
Prone, wearing a skim of blue eyeliner, a pair of coral slingback heels with a white platform and a matching coral blazer with fawn lapels, tells me to take the seat at the single place setting.
She is firm on that, and in general: sharp shoulders, hands motioning with extreme deliberation. She will adjust herself slightly in her chair to express revulsion, or cover her eyes to convey despair or mock-horror.
At times, she will lean in so closely and with such a pronounced expression of interest that her chin almost touches the table. At others, she will toss her head back and laugh, cast a swinging leg over an armrest.
Presently, a colleague of hers rushes in, wordlessly deposits a mound of dressing-laden salad on a plate before me (shredded beef, I think), lifts a paper napkin to reveal a basket of brown bread and departs immediately.
There’s a camcorder on a tripod behind us, the lens of which happens to be pointed in Prone’s direction. It isn’t running, presumably, though I neglect to ask. What I do ask, with surprise, is whether I’m going to be the only one eating.
She has to do the talking, Prone shrugs; not quizzically, not apologetically, more “duh”.
Terry Prone’s mother was a piano teacher. Her father, a socialist and a trade unionist, worked, resistant to promotion, as a “clerk” at the Dublin Gas Company. She has one sister, Hilary, who is eight years her senior. Growing up, Hilary was, she says, “clev-er”.
“School was hell,” says Prone. “At the Holy Faith Convent in Clontarf, the nuns never actually learned my name; they’d automatically say ‘Hilary’. And I’d automatically answer to it.”
As a result, and because of regular bouts of illness, Prone “truly hated school”.
“I would rather be dead than to have to go back to being a ch-,” she makes the point without finishing the word and keeps speaking, in the way a lot of Irish broadcasters do.
There were redeeming moments: at the age of seven, she was entered into the Father Mathew Feis, a drama contest. “And I won the prize,” she whispers, in a tiny, breathy voice. Then, tinier still, slower, almost inaudibly, eyes wide: “And my picture was in the paper.”
After that, says Prone, she knew what she was going to do; she was going to act at the Abbey Theatre. She did so. While still at school, she began picking up minor roles and doing some prompting. “I would be on the bus home from the Abbey at 11 o’clock at night with Latin grammar on my lap,” she says.
Around this time, a nun at her school handpicked her to appear on a TV show called Teen Talk. Classmates were at pains, she says, to point out that she was too young to do it. The cries went unheeded. Prone became a regular panellist on the programme, which was presented by Bunny Carr.
As she grew older, the offers of theatrical parts tapered off. The artistic director at the Abbey called her in, at one stage, to tell her she was too fat to play her age. Her relationship with the theatre ended when she was still in her teens.
Prone told the Abbey, when asked to stand in for an actress who had fallen ill with ten nights of a run remaining, that she would require £500 to do it. “The guy said: ‘If I were you, I wouldn’t force us to pay you £500. If you do, you will never work in the Abbey again.’ But I knew I was never going to work in the Abbey again,” she says, smiling. “And I needed the £500.”
Once the run ended, Prone began to focus on both radio and writing. She took particular pleasure, for a period, in writing under a variety of pseudonyms. One, used for short stories, was “Geraldine Desmond”.
“I had 11 pseudonyms. You can’t have pseudonyms now,” she says. “It was better to be somebody else, for particular things. Also, I loved being somebody else. I’ve always loved being somebody else. I love not being me.”
Prone is incredibly dramatic, and at times histrionic. She regularly loses herself in description, snaps in and out of reveries of her own construction; some are gentle and nonspecific, others are pointed, feverish.
One could call her a thespian-turned-media consultant, but it is clear she is still a thespian, of a sort. “It’s a thing that really annoys me when people say, oh, you’re approaching it as if...as if it was acting, because that’s to assume that acting is not telling the truth,” she says later. “Acting is absolutely telling the truth.”
Did she plan to get into media consulting? “Oh no, oh, God no,” she answers. “No, no, no, no. No.”
Time passed. Bunny Carr and Prone kept in touch. “He had always stayed in touch with me,” she says. By the time Prone was in her 20s, Carr had begun working at an organisation called the Catholic Communications Centre, set up to train priests and nuns to capitalise on emerging media, “television in particular”.
One day, he asked her to come in to assess and advise a number of priests on giving homilies. She again lowers her voice to a whisper: “About which I knew the sum total of shag all. But I kind of risked it.”
After she voiced some concerns about not being able to do it, Carr put in a “senior lecturer” to watch Prone. His name was Tom Savage. Her first encounter with her husband (who was then a priest, but “getting out”) coincided with her first encounter with a process that would form a large part of her career.
Savage and Prone went on to work for Carr at his eponymous communications agency, for more than 20 years. In 2008, the story goes, there was an acrimonious split at Carr Communications. Prone, Savage, and their son Anton all left. “I’ll have a check,” Prone whispers, about the timing.
She laughs, reedily, long and hard about newspaper reports on the subject, and belittles the suggestion that the decision to leave was simplified by a certainty that critical employees and, moreover, clients, would follow.
“What happened was, we sold the business [in 2004],” she says.
“And we did a lovely thing, lovely deal, everybody happy. I mean, the lawyers at the time were saying: ‘Wow, we don’t often see this, people still speaking to each other on the day of signing over the business’, and then we worked there for a while. Then we thought: things are shifting in different directions. Why don’t we just go over there, and do that. But we didn’t do the thing of ‘We’ll take business’. We didn’t.
“Nor did we do the thing of ‘We’ll take people’. We did a very separate thing.
“In fact, we advertised in your own paper, so we did,” she says, as though teasing a child. “Was a good ad, wasn’t it?”
The ad that now acts as an alibi for this “very separate thing” invited applications from “doggedly honest workaholics” (a very Prone formulation of words), willing to work for half of what they were being paid.
With that, and a good number of transfers from Carr, the Communications Clinic opened for business.
A year or so later, Savage was appointed chairman of the RTÉ Authority. His tenure draws to a close this month. “Tom has one more board meeting, then he’s free,” Prone says, the “free” pitched high into mid-air.
Is he happy? She nods a lot. “It’s phenomenal. I was going to say he’s brought them back into solvency; of course he hasn’t, the RTÉ guys did that, but starting from where he was starting, I think it wouldn’t be just me who would regard him as having done a trojan job especially well.”
In the summer of 2012, the link between RTÉ and the Communications Clinic (as brought about by Savage) and the relationship between Savage and Prone became the subject of intense scrutiny, and later criticism, as it emerged that Father Kevin Reynolds, the priest defamed by RTÉ’s Prime Time Investigates, had been a client of the Communications Clinic.
Savage maintained that he was not aware the priest had received advice from Prone. Loud calls were made for his resignation.
We talk about conflicts of interest, though not about Reynolds.
At one stage, Prone tells me, Savage was working on Morning Ireland, working by day at Carr Communications, and editing the Irish Medical News by night.
“It’s really simple, ethics are simple,” she says. “I cannot ever write something for the Irish Examiner or the Evening Herald [Prone is a columnist for both] about a client. I can’t casually say: ‘So-and-so did a wonderful speech today’ if I have written that speech. You can’t do it.”
Prone says she would like somebody to analyse her work and her media contributions - she suspects they would discover what she purports to know, that there is “almost exaggerated care” taken.
She uses Manor Farm Chickens (arguably one of the less complicated clients in an eye-watering list that features everybody from Rory McIlroy to James Reilly), to give an example.
Is it trickier when the client is a senior coalition partner, I ask? When stuff runs the gamut? “I don’t know what their policies are,” she says of political clients. “I don’t care what their policies are.”
There’s a myth, Prone practically sings, “that if you’re working with a Fianna Fáiler, you have to be Fianna Fáil. No.” The longevity and resilience of her status as an adviser-of-choice has been helped by her ability to shift easily from one interest to another.
She likes to get to the office at 5.30am. She tells me it’s “ludicrous” to be as enthusiastic as she is after 40 years in business. She says she has no plans to stop working, because she can’t afford to. “A Martello tower has an amazing mortgage,” she says. Her home opens to the public and Prone personally leads the tour on Saturday mornings.
On journalism’s distrust of the business of communications and public relations, she says she thinks that people “need somebody to hate, or to despise”.
That said, she thinks she has been treated well by journalists all of her life – she later mentions a piece that made her think: “What a precious, self-regarding, pain in the tits you are” and resolve to change - even when, “every now and again, there’s been a ferocious thing where I have thought: I’m not going to get through this”.
She will not discuss these “ferocious things”.
But how does Prone describe herself? The ticking of a wall clock is briefly audible from the other end of the room. “I,” she says, “. . . my passport says I’m a writer. I suppose that’s the wistful thing that . . . and it’s never . . . I don’t know why I do it.”
It’s wistful for sure: occupations aren’t listed on passports. She’s not that self-defining, she says.
We are briefly interrupted. Something, or someone, has started to arrive, and she needs to call somebody called Sean before going in somewhere. “Thank youuuuuuu,” the messenger calls, with familial cheeriness.
“I wouldn’t want you to tell anybody, really, but I’m not really in PR,” Prone says. “I’m a trainer. It kind of segues into giving people advice on how to deal with a media thing, but you wouldn’t want to come to me if . . . oh, I don’t know . . . if you wanted your picture regularly on the social pages. I wouldn’t have a fecking clue how to do that.
“You wouldn’t come to me if you wanted me to talk to Cliff [Taylor, editor of The Sunday Business Post], and say: ‘Please get somebody in the Business Post to stop being so evil to . . .’ I don’t do that stuff. No. I don’t think I’ve ever rung anybody on any newspaper. Let me not make it an absolute, because I’m sure I have for some reason, but I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do that stuff.”