The telephone company has the image of being staid and old-fashioned. But Ma Bell can no longer be accused of sitting back and waiting for someone to deposit 20 cents into the phone box.

They're after business and, by gosh, they're getting it.

Here is a good example of how a giant company is creating new markets never dreamed of before.

Out in Seattle, Wash., the Pacific Northwest Bell Co. ran ads in both Seattle papers a few weeks before Christmas telling children they could speak to Santa Claus by dialing the number in the ad. It was a great idea and one that would warm the heart of any parent. The only trouble was the area code to be dialed was 212, which is New York City.

Many parents in the Seattle area thought this was dirty pool and that if the Pacific Northwest Bell really cared about Christmas they would have listed a local number where Santa could be reached.

But Jim Moznette, a PNB spokesman, said the telephone company was trying to encourage long-distance calls and that if Santa Claus could be reached in Seattle by Seattle children it would not be worth the phone company's time.

He was quoted as saying. "We're a commercial enterprise and one of our main sources of revenue is longdistance calls. The ad was run to see if people would make calls and to generate enough long-distance revenues to make some profit to boot."

According to reports, 15,000 to 20,000 children made the calls and heard a one-minute recording from Sanata. But there was such a flap about it from Seattle parents that the FTC regional director suggested PNB refund the cost of the calls. The phone company thought that was a stupid idea, and said it was willing to discuss refunds with parents but only on a "case by case" basis.

As a stockholder in the telephone company I am delighted that it is finally putting some imagination into increasing the use of its equipment. The idea of having kids call Santa Claus long-distance is just the beginning.

I can see the day when Boston children will be urged to telephone the Easter Bunny in Hawaii, and Atlanta tykes will be induced to dial Anchorage, Alaska, to hear a message from the tooth fairy.

Further possibilities are long-distance calls to The Daily Planet, Area Code 416 (Toronto, Canada), which would give a child in New Orleans a chance to chat with Superman, and Salt Lake City children could phone London, England, to listen to a recorded message from the queen.

The beauty of encouraging children to call long-distance is that, while the cost of the minute may be relatively cheap, most kids tend to hang on much longer in the hopes that Santa Claus or whoever is on the other end will have more to say. I've seen 6- and 7-year-olds hold the phone to their ear for 10- minutes utterly fascinated by whatever is being said at the other end of the line. While the idea of dialing New York from Seattle may not be a big deal for an adult, It's still a thrill for a little kid, and it means money in the bank for the telephone company.

No one knows who the genius was at Pacific Northwest Bell who thought up the idea of getting kids to call Santa long-distance, but I sincerely hope that the person involved gets the recognition he or she so richly deserves.

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone but he never appreciated the commercial potential of his device. It took someone from the cold reaches of the Northwest to plant Santa Claus in New York City, and then urge youngsters to get on the blower and call him from Seattle. If the phone people can get pre-school children into the habit of dialing long-distance, they will generate a fantastic new market that has never been tapped before.