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Office politics: company courses on the campaign

They learn to write letters to their elected representatives, take field trips to the state capital, and play an elaborate game to gain understanding of the electoral process.

These are not lessons from a civics or political science class, but some of the activities of corporate political education programs sponsored by large companies to help their employees understand the American political system, in some cases on company time.

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At Exxon USA, employees and interested spouses are invited to participate in a 14- hour, two-day program; half the course is given on company time. Films, guest speakers, and videotape presentations provide a multimedia introduction to how the political process works, the role of volunteers in election campaigns, and how to communicate with elected representatives.

The highlight is a 3 1/2-hour campaign game, titled "See How They Run," where teams of employees compete to earn points by running the most effective political campaign for a mythical candidate.

One two-hour segment of the course deals with state and federal issues related to the company. "This is the only time we talk about anything that is specifically related to the company," said an Exxon USA spokesman, who noted that in all other aspects "it's a very nonpartisan operation."

Exxon's program is expensive; each session costs the company between $4,000 and $5,000, including meals for the 50 participants in each group and the services of Michael E. Dunn & Associates, the company's public affairs consulting firm. The program is being repeated 20 times in 17 locations during 1980, and will be done even more times in 1981, according to the company spokesman.

In a much smaller scale effort to interest employees in the coming elections, Alcoa's 2,100 corporate headquarters employees have been invited to Tuesday lunch-hour showings of tapes from "Agronsky & Company," the Washington Post/Newsweek-distributed television program. The company hopes this opportunity to watch such political commentators as Elizabeth Drew of the New Yorker, Hugh Sidey of Time magazine, and syndicated columnists George F. Will, Jack Kilpatrick, and Carl T. Rowan will help workers to "expand their knowledge of issues and personalities" of the coming election, according to an official memorandum.

Alcoa also makes a regular practice of providing new employees with voter registration forms, according to spokesman Gordon Wangershein. This is especially convenient for new personnel who have moved to accept jobs with the company, and must reregister to vote.

At Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, voter education is limited to bulletin-board reminders of the election day date.

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At Ralston-Purina's "Checkerboard Square" headquarters in St. Louis, seminars which are "not elaborate" are given every six or eight months for employees at all levels, according to Jim Reed, manager of corporate information. The government relations department developed and sponsors the four-hour-a-day, five-day course, which is held on company time. State senators and representatives visit the course, and the final session is a trip to Jefferson City, the state capital, to visit the Legislature and tour the governor's mansion.

How do firms become involved in employee political education programs? According to Barbara Ann Alderson, vice- president of the Dunn firm that helped Exxon to develop its program, companies usually begin to work with the elected officials and representatives in their company's headquarters and branch locations. Later a less intense program might be arranged for other groups of employees.

"None of our clients talks about particular parties or candidates," Ms. Alderson said. And spokesmen for all companies contacted emphasized that education programs were completely separate from PACs -- the political action committees set up by some companies to channel employee campaign contributions to candidates believed to be amenable to corporate interests.

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