Was Murrow Right About the Last Three Feet?

September 3, 2010
      If you read about public diplomacy for more than five minutes you come across a quote by Edward Murrow the renowned journalist and head of the USIA in the early 1960s.  You know the one I mean – about the last three feet – but I’m beginning to wonder whether Murrow was actually right (gasps of shock from the readers).

Firstly, what did Murrow say?  I’ve come across at least four versions

1. The wiki entry on Murrow at the PD Council has

“The real crucial link in the international exchange is the last three feet, which is bridged by personal contact, one person talking to another.”

2. In a speech “The Last Three Feet: A Fulbright Experience” by William B. Bader, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs June 5, 2000 we find

“In a journey of 10,000 miles only the last three feet matter.”

3. In a piece on America.gov we get

“The renowned journalist Edward R. Murrow once said, “The really crucial link in the international communication chain is the last three feet, which is bridged by personal contact — one person talking to another.”

The idea of the chain has become common in iterations of the quote over the past decade.

4. The fullest version that I’ve found is in  Edward R. Murrow: Journalism At its Best (Washington DC: Department of State, 2006), p. 2. which even gives a  source

“ It has always seemed to me the real art in this business is not so much moving information or guidance or policy five or 10,000 miles. That is an electronic problem. The real art is to move it the last three feet in face to face conversation.”

— Edward R. Murrow, ABC TV’s “Issues and Answers,” August 4, 1963

The ‘last three feet’ is a nice turn of phrase and it’s likely that Murrow used it on multiple occasions hence the different versions of the idea. If anyone can supply chapter and verse on the context I’d be really interested.

Secondly, was Murrow right?  In the final version he is saying that moving information over long distances is easier than actually influencing somebody with it.  If that was true in 1963 it’s even more true now.  What I’m wondering about is where it places the emphasis in the  process of public diplomacy.  Given that interpersonal communication is normally regarded as far more persuasive than other modes of communication is this really the hard part?  I’d be tempted to argue that the hard part is actually closing the distance to the last three feet, figuring out who you should be talking to, finding them and getting them into the same room.  Alternatively it could be that finding the money to hire the people to do the talking is really the hard part. Or it could be trying to ensure that you are not forced to defend the indefensible.  The appeal of ‘the last three feet’  idea is the emphasis it places on rolling up your sleeves and ‘getting out there’ the point is that I’m not sure that’s where the problems really are.

This appeal to getting it done, at the sharp end, in the field, also explains why the idea is so appealing to people who work in high pressure selling.  [Google ‘the last three feet’ and look at the first few hits]  Of course this reminded me of  the famous motivational speech from Glengarry Glenross

“We’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody want to see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.”

I’m not convinced that this is the best way to think about PD but it might explain why there’s usually a vacancy at the top of the American PD tree…

One comment

  1. […] and former visiting lecturer at GWU’s School of Media and Public Affairs) in her 2010 piece, “Was Murrow Right About the Last Three Feet?”    Archetti […]

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