Bettina Wulff may not be a name known to most Americans, but her claim to fame is that she was the former First Lady of Germany. Her husband, the former German President, Christian Wulff, resigned in early 2012 amidst a scandal involving personal favors from wealthy friends. The couple’s joint demise was particularly hard after the intense media honeymoon they initially enjoyed. The magazines had loved Bettina.
But resignation did not result in obscurity. Gossip recently reached new heights, or lows: prior to her high-profile marriage, Mrs. Wulff is alleged to have been an escort. The rumors spread like wildfire on the Internet – with the alarming result for Frau Wulff that if you typed her name into Google, the search engine’s auto complete function suggested “Bettina Wulff escort.” Google’s helpful service was now a slanderous PR issue.
Mrs. Wulff, formerly in PR, launched an aggressive campaign to clear her name. In September, she published a memoir rebutting speculation about her past. Next, she followed up with a lawsuit against Google Germany, requesting the deletion of 3,000 search results and the suppression of its derogatory auto complete results. Critics said this was a publicity stunt to sell her book, another sign of her craving for media attention – and a counterproductive one that kept the rumor alive. Was it better for Frau Wulff to take her lumps or fight the fight?
The PR Verdict: “B” (Good Show) for Bettina Wulff. Who says what goes online stays there forever?
The PR Takeaway: To fight the rumor, change the conversation. In spite of endless gossip about her past, Bettina has turned the attention of media experts to another prominent player: Google and the debate about the monopolist’s responsibility for content. The court has temporarily ordered Google to eliminate eight search results. While this has not fully restored public sympathy for Bettina Wulff, it diverted the national conversation from “Was she really?” to a different question about Google and its content polices. Also, Bettina Wulff has changed her online history. Even for a First Lady, that’s something.