HOT SPRINGS, VA., OCT. 10 -- American corporations can play an important role in educating employes about AIDS, the leaders of the federal government's efforts against the disease told a group of top corporate executives today.

"This is a public-private venture of the first order. We've got to stay together," James D. Watkins, recently appointed chairman of President Reagan's AIDS commission, said at a news conference after addressing business leaders gathered here for the semiannual meeting of the Business Council, a group of chief executives from the nation's blue-chip corporations.

"You have some of the top business leaders in the country in there, and they're serious about this issue," he said. "They're going to take it back and take a look at their own promotion of health information programs in their companies."

"When they start in-house education programs, we can make a giant step forward," said Dr. William B. Walsh, another member of the president's commission. "The education that they can carry out, in the same way they have carried out drug abuse education, can have a very positive impact."

The Business Council usually discusses economic topics at its meetings, whose sessions are closed to the news media. But virtually all of this two-day conference was given over to presentations and discussion on AIDS and drug abuse.

And while some participants privately questioned the choice of topics at the outset of the meeting, and the program apparently reduced attendance at the meeting to 85 executives from the usual 100 or more, most of the executives clearly came away impressed. Today's AIDS seminars, in particular, exceeded their allotted time, and a Business Council spokesman said, "There's clearly a stimulated interest."

"This is the most comprehensive briefing I've ever had on AIDS," James E. Olson, chairman of American Telephone & Telegraph Co., said after the meeting.

"I think the AIDS problem absolutely demands education," said James E. Burke, chairman of health products manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, who set up the meeting's program.

"I think there is lurking beneath the surface a lot of fear, some of which was dispelled on my part today," said John F. McGillicuddy, chairman of Manufacturers Hanover Corp., the New York banking concern.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Otis R. Bowen told the executives Friday that the direct annual costs of acquired immune deficiency syndrome to the nation's economy could rise to $8 billion or more by 1991 from the current $1 billion a year, while indirect costs, including the loss of worker productivity and premature death, could rise eightfold to $55.6 billion or more by 1991.

"So the dollar impact of the AIDS epidemic should concern corporate management," Bowen said. "But more than a few company executives still don't realize this."

"Many of them, because of fear or ignorance or both, have not come to grips with the AIDS question," Walsh said.

Watkins said the executives received "a very thorough rundown on awareness, of raising their personal knowledge . . . . It's to their benefit to get more education themselves and then take that education and move it back into their organizations."

While some American companies have well-established programs to deal with AIDS cases among employes, many have only recently started programs to heighten employe awareness. "It's a very incipient problem among many corporations," McGillicuddy said.

Ruben F. Mettler, chairman of TRW Inc., the Cleveland-based automotive, aerospace and services conglomerate, said the presentation today "confirms many things we're already doing." He said his company has dealt with a handful of AIDS cases among its 85,000 employes and is attempting to educate the rest of its work force about the disease.

"On AIDS, we're in a wait and see" situation about going further, he said. "We're engaged in education in terms of telling our employes how to avoid {the disease}. We're trying to avoid hysteria."

Dr. James W. Curran, director of the AIDS program at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, another speaker today, said companies that have had AIDS cases among their work force often have taken the lead in education about the disease in part to quell fears of other employes. "Often the employes themselves are afraid of other employes that have AIDS. They're afraid of working with them," he said. "It provides an opportunity, then, for corporations to educate a lot of people who are working."

Curran also said most corporations have dealt with AIDS cases just as they would with other disabling illnesses. "The principles that guide other company policies in terms of illness often are the same principles that are followed with AIDS, but they have to be thought through," he said.