Large numbers of corporate presidents and chief executive officers will take to their pulpits this year to preach on a variety of subjects, including productivity, deregulation, reducing the federal deficit, curing inflationary psychology, voting pro-business and returning the nation to such holy precepts as the market economy.
The texts for these sermons are the annual reports.
Once rather straight-forward conveyers of uncontroversial facts and figures about corporations, these corporate documents have increasingly become purveyors of a point-of-view as well.
Observers trace the beginning of the trend back to the early 1970s, when corporations, feeling themselves under fire from a variety of political and social forces, began to plead their own cases. At first those pleadings took a defensive tone.
"As far as issue-oriented material going into books, that dates back about 10 years," said Willima P. Dunk, president of Corpcom Services. Corpcom produces annual reports for a number of large corporations.
"Companies were quantitatively on the defensive, ofr instance on environmental issues," said Dunk. Abut the same time, "corporations were beginning to get the first broad survey material that indicated that the confidence factor in business had declined. For the first time at the corporate level, people began to be sensitive to the fact that, 'My god, we are no longer loved.'
"Since then the character of issue commentary has changed from defending themselves and saying, 'Gee, we're not as bad as you think,' to corporate advocacy," Dunk said. More typical of current commentary are reports that say, "Gee, the other part of society is not doing as well as it should be and and we've got to do something," he said.
Not surprisingly, a large part of the issue-oriented commentary is reserved for whatever issue has the most impact on the corporation in question.
When Santa Fe Industries Inc., for instance, decries "the lack of progress in formulating and carrying out a national energy policy for solving the country's serious dependence on imported oil," it quickly gets to another point.
"Sante Fe's ambitious plans for development of its own coal properties in the West have been delayed by a lack of urgency among those in government responsible for energy matters."
Lewis W. Foy, Bethlehem Steel's retiring chairman, notes in that company's report that "I have, in recent years, been devoting an increasing amount of my time to public policy matters affecting the steel industry in general and Bethlehem in particular."
Foy lists four issues: "Capital formation, unfair trade practices by foreign steel producers, freedom of the marketplace to determine the price of our products and excessive government regulation."
Bristol-Myers, a pharmaceutical and cosmetics manufacturer, decries new regulatory agencies that "disturb the natural regulatory effects of market competition with high detailed regulations" and the notion of "zero risk" as a standard to which companies should be held.
IBM focuses its 1979 annual report on a single economic issue -- "Raising Productivity" -- and quickly points out how its products help do that.
And Standard Oil Company of Indiana asks readers to "support political candidates at all levels of government who have expressed their confidence in the competitive enterprise system and who refuse to make the oil industry a scapegoat for political failures."
Many of the policy statements are broad political appeals, however. "We applaud the motives and the action of the Federal Reserve [in tightening credit] while hoping for and urging similarly realistic response by our elected officials," write the chairman and president of First Bank System Inc. of Minneapolis.
"They could contribute significantly by curbing excessive spending and budget deficits and by offering reasonable encouragement to new capital investment through improved tax policy," they said.
Kollmorgen Corporation, a technology company with headquarters in Connecticut, quoted Frederik von Hayek, "the great philosophical advocate of the free market system," and then wound up:
"In a nation drifting slowly away from these concepts of freedom, and individual worth, and ultimate responsibility for one's own destiny, it is ironic that business may be the most free institution left in America. We believe that business must show the way by example to the rest of our institutions."
There is a question about how effective these exhorations are.
"Among the things that are designed to make companies better perceived, the things that seem to work best are when you catch the interest of the reader by the fact that you're giving him something," said Dunk. "You can go out and rail against inflation, but it seems more effective if you go on and give away consumer oriented matter that helps them grapply with day to day problems. a
"The stuff that is purely polemical seems often to fall on deaf ears, except with people who are overly for your position or against it," he said.
What is important about the soical and political sermons is what they reveal about corporate concerns.
"People genuinely do feel these things," Dunk said. "As far as at least telling you the state of mind of the people in the corporation, the fact that you see a lot of political sensitivity in there indicated that this is the state of the corporate psyche. They may say it in more restrained language, but they do say what is going on in their heads," he said.
"Public issues occupy increasing amounts of management time," noted the leaders of Spring Mills, Inc., in the textiel company's annual report.
"The fact is that corporations have politics on their minds and are doing something about it," Dunk said.
That is the message the more political, activist corporate community is sending in its annual reports.